ALPE DI PAMPEAGO, Italy (VN) – All the favorites were sharpening their knives ahead of the start of Friday’s five-climb, 198km 19th stage, with the full expectation of getting rid of the stubborn presence of Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Barracuda).
Instead, it was Hesjedal who was causing the pain.
The Canadian turned those expectations on their head, flipping on the turbos with 1km to go to drop Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) and go on the offensive.
“It’s pretty straight-forward. I felt good and I had to do it today, that’s it,” Hesjedal told VeloNews at the finish line. “Two more days.”
Hesjedal took time on all of his GC rivals, including carving back 13 seconds from Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), who limited the bleeding to keep the pink jersey by just 17 seconds.
According to teammate Christian Vande Velde, Hesjedal’s ride will only further neutralize his rivals going into this weekend’s battle.
“If on all the days when people think you need to be on the defensive and then you turn it around and go on the offensive,” Vande Velde told VeloNews. “That makes people scratch their heads a little bit.”
Hesjedal and Rodríguez have been locked in a bitter, yo-yoing battle for pink that appears to be going down to the wire.
Hesjedal held it for three stages before Rodríguez snatched it away in Assisi in stage 10 thanks to time bonuses. Hesjedal took it back at Cervinia in stage 14 – where no time bonuses were in play in the Giro’s major mountain stages – and Rodríguez recaptured it the next day when Hesjedal suffered in the cold and rain.
Since then, Hesjedal’s been breathing down Rodríguez’s neck. And Saturday’s confident ride underscores Hesjedal’s momentum going into this weekend’s electrifying finale.
“Ryder’s showing he’s got the legs to win this thing,” Garmin-Barracuda’s Peter Stetina said. “Ryder is getting more and more confident every day. It’s fun to see. At the start of the race, back in Denmark, you could tell he was nervous. He was keyed-up, but he was unsure. Each day, he relaxed a bit more. Then he took the pink jersey. Now he’s just riding on cloud nine. He’s getting stronger. It’s amazing to see.”
Saturday’s epic mountain stage and one technically challenging time trial stage Sunday in Milano stand between him and a chance to become Canada’s first grand tour winner.
“I don’t fear anything,” Hesjedal said when asked if he was afraid of today’s punchy final climb. “I feel good. I am here for real.”
On Saturday, Garmin-Barracuda rode as if they were leading the Giro.
Katusha controlled the pace leading toward the brutal first-category Passo Manghen midway through the stage, with Garmin slipping in behind their slipstream.
The team rode well to protect Hesjedal’s flanks before the final, 50km circuit, which included two passages up the Cat. 1 Pampeago summit and a second-category climb.
Stetina and Vande Velde helped pace Hesjedal onto the final Pampeago passage, leading the reduced front group onto the final climb before the GC favorites started to throw down.
Hesjedal took over and left everyone eating his dust. Garmin sport director Charly Wegelius said the team upped its game on a day when some expected them to fold.
“Ryder’s done a fantastic ride, unbelievable,” Wegelius said. “I’m proud of the whole team; Pete and Christian. We’re going to look at the classification tonight with a cool head tonight before making plans.”
Stetina says it’s obvious what they need to do up the Stelvio. When asked if the team should put the champagne on ice, Stetina only said, “No, no way … no!”
“We have to stay vigilant. Tomorrow is the hardest day of them all. Everything could turn upside down in one day, in one hour, on the Stelvio,” Stetina said. “We’ve done the right work for 19 stages, so we gotta do it for one more.”
Everyone on Garmin said it’s better that Hesjedal did not regain the pink jersey. Rodríguez was just walking into a post-stage press conference nearly two hours after the stage, time that Hesjedal was using to get to the team bus at the bottom of the mountain and begin his recovery process.
Hesjedal agreed he’s in a perfect position to try to deliver Garmin’s first grand tour victory in franchise history.
“Yeah, it’s an ideal situation. I think I will be better on the Stelvio than today,” he said. “I feel good. I guess you saw what happened today.”