CORTINA d’AMPEZZO, Italy (VN) – Ryder Hesjedal was cool as a cucumber after riding shoulder-to-shoulder with the Giro d’Italia leaders and defending his second place through Wednesday’s harrowing mountain stage across the spectacular Dolomites. With only two mountain stages remaining, the Canadian’s GC rivals were not so calm.
In the shadow of the Passo Giau, Hesjedal calmly spun on the rollers in a post-stage cool-down at the Garmin-Barracuda bus, oblivious or perhaps quietly relishing the growing consternation among the Giro d’Italia “big,” who are now in full panic mode over the increasing danger posed by the Canadian.
“It was hard today. I am pleased with how it turned out, except that I started cramping on the descent,” Hesjedal told VeloNews after the stage. “Today was huge. There were not a lot of people who thought I could be third on the stage and sitting second overall in the Giro.”
If observers discounted Hesjedal’s chances at the start of the Giro, they’re certainly waking up to the fact that he could very well become the first Canadian to win a grand tour on Sunday in Milan.
Hesjedal rode superbly up the first-category Passo Giau, even putting down an attack on the day’s fourth rated climb as the GC favorites rode a brutal pace that shredded the field, leaving only a handful of men in real contention for the pink jersey.
Hesjedal dashed to third on the stage, his cramps perhaps knocking back his chance to take the stage win, and retained second place, 30 seconds behind Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), and 52 seconds ahead of third-place Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale).
Rodríguez, who has battled Hesjedal for the pink jersey over the past week, can see the writing on the wall. Unless he can take significant time on Hesjedal in the remaining two mountaintop finales, he could very well lose the maglia rosa to Hesjedal in the final-day time trial in Milan.
“Today I saw a very strong Ryder,” said Rodríguez, who kicked to victory and kept the pink jersey. “Ryder was there all day today. If the Giro continues like this, the victory will be his. I hope he cracks and I’ll do everything I can to make him crack. But Ryder is strong.”
Basso’s Liquigas team once again set a grinding pace at the front of the peloton, methodically popping riders off the back. Today’s primary victim was pre-race favorite Roman Kreuziger (Astana), who tumbled out of the top 10 to 20th overall, at 12:53 back, after losing more than 11 minutes.
But Liquigas couldn’t rattle Hesjedal, and team boss Roberto Amadio says unless he cracks, the Giro could be over. Amadio said the flat TT course in Milan points clearly in Hesjedal’s favor against the climbers.
“If he keeps in this position, he can win the Giro,” Amadio told VeloNews. “He can take three minutes out of ‘Purito’ in the time trial and one-and-a-half minutes out of Ivan. We have to hope he has a bad day.”
Hesjedal might have already had his bad day. That was on Sunday, when he struggled in the cold and wet stage in the mountains above Lecco and ceded the jersey back to Rodríguez.
On Wednesday, Hesjedal was steady and showed no signs of distress. Behind the scenes, his confidence is growing by the kilometer. Publicly, Hesjedal continues to take it day-by-day, knowing that any sort of mishap — a crash, an ill-timed mechanical or even a lack of concentration — can have devastating effects.
“If things stay in the status quo in the mountains, that’s good for us,” Garmin sport director Allan Peiper told VeloNews. “Ryder is in a great place right now. He’s as confident as I’ve ever seen him. He believes in himself and today was a big confirmation that he’s ready to fight for the pink jersey all the way to Milan.”
Hesjedal said his performance so far through this Giro should not be a surprise to anyone, though just about every rival continues to express dismay at his stubborn consistency.
“I have said since December that I am going to aim to be good in the GC. So far, it’s gone well,” he said. “I am riding well and I want to take advantage of the situation. We’ll see what happens in the next mountain stages. Anyone who’s ever watched me knows that in every three-week tour I’ve done I’ve gotten better every day.”
Tomorrow’s flat transition stage presents the final chance for the sprinters before Friday’s and Saturday’s epic duels in the Italian Alps. Hesjedal says he’s raced up Friday’s summit to Alpe di Pampeago, but is unfamiliar with the Mortirolo and the Stelvio that lay in wait Saturday.
If Hesjedal can hold steady, the Giro just might well be within his grasp.
“That’s going to be our plan; to have no major time losses before that final time trial,” Peiper said. “It’s a risk for the others to leave it to the final climb up the Stelvio. Basso is almost a minute down on Ryder. He’s got to do something or it might be too late.”
Basso and fellow Italian Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) seem to be betting everything on those final two summit finishes, but as Peiper says, it might be too late.