CERVINIA, Italy (VN) – You couldn’t tell Ryder Hesjedal was wearing a pink jersey under layers of jackets and a Garmin team-issue hat and scarf after staging a perfectly-timed coup to recapture the maglia rosa in Saturday’s soggy summit finish high in the Italian Alps.
Hesjedal patiently answered journalists’ questions at a post-stage press conference, nibbling on some post-stage recovery food, warm, dry and happy to be back in the Giro d’Italia’s pink jersey.
“I felt good on the climb. I was comfortable the whole way. I just figured I would try and see how the legs would respond. I think I timed it perfectly,” Hesjedal said with a smile. “The jersey was there for the taking. There wasn’t too much to it.”
If Hesjedal sounded matter-of-fact about the whole business, perhaps it was a post-stage cool-down after an intense effort that saw the Giro tackle its first major climbs and Hesjedal reconfirming he’s a legitimate contender for overall victory when the Giro concludes May 27 in Milan.
Hesjedal didn’t like losing the pink jersey to Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) on time bonuses last week and knew that the Canada-like weather could put the chill on the tiny Spanish climber. Hesjedal hit the accelerator with 3km to go and drove home enough of a wedge to covert a 17-second deficit into a nine-second lead, the exact same margin he led Rodríguez going into Tuesday’s stage to Assisi.
“Once I was in (the jersey), it was a little sad to be out of it,” Hesjedal said. “I feel fortunate that I could pull it back and experience that again. You never know when it will be your last.”
How long will his second pink jersey run last? Hesjedal refused to look beyond the next day’s battle, but there’s a sense of growing confidence. When asked who the favorites were, he provided a glimpse of what he’s really thinking.
“The race is still wide open,” he said. “Kreuziger is strong. Everyone is there. Basso, Rodríguez, Scarponi, Pozzovivo… and Hesjedal.”
Hesjedal was the lone GC contender to take the initiative on a day that was largely about damage control on a grinding climb that provided little terrain for advances against well-stocked teams such as Liquigas-Cannondale and Lampre-ISD.
Liquigas and Astana put most riders on the rivet up the slow, grinding 27km ascent to Cervinia, the longest of this year’s Giro, but a summit that tapered off in the final two kilometers to go wasn’t ideal for high-octane attacks from the likes of Scarponi, Rodríguez or Pozzovivo.
That terrain is ideal, however, for Hesjedal, who surged clear with 3km to go. Rodríguez countered with 2km to go, but that move fizzled as the other GC rivals collaborated to reel him in.
“I attacked to try to defend the jersey, but it didn’t work out. It was cold and everyone knew it would be a hard stage,” Rodríguez said. “Today wasn’t good for me. I like shorter climbs that are steeper. Tomorrow is much better for me. We’ll see what happens, but I will try to recover the pink jersey.”
Behind Hesjedal, there was a lot of work for little payback. There were no major shakeups among the top GC favorites. Kreuziger lost eight seconds in the final kilometer as Astana teammate Paolo Tiralongo sprinted to fifth to lead the top chase group across the line at 46 seconds back.
With Hesjedal back in pink, the Italians will be looking at him more warily than before. He can count on stellar support from Christian Vande Velde and Peter Stetina, who helped pace Hesjedal throughout the climb until he surged clear in his quest for the pink jersey.
When asked if he would ride to defend or attack, Hesjedal said he must play it smart to keep pink in Sunday’s explosive, four-climb stage.
“Probably a little of both. The other favorites have clearly taken control of the race. They feel they are capable of winning,” he said. “My team, we don’t have the numbers on the climbs. I will be looking at the riders who have taken control of the race.”
With no more time bonuses remaining in the decisive mountain stages, Hesjedal won’t have to worry about losing the jersey to strong finish-line bursts. If he can manage to stay close to Rodríguez up Sunday’s 7.8km, second category finish climb, there’s a good chance he can take pink into Monday’s rest day.
After that, anything can happen with three major mountain stages and a final-day time trial still in play.
Does he dare think of winning the Giro? Hesjedal knows the hardest part of the Giro is still to come, but the final-day TT plays in his favor. The race is still wide open as no clear favorite has emerged to dominate the GC.
“I am not thinking that far. I haven’t been thinking that way. I am happy to be where I am right now. That’s how I approached the race today and that’s what I will continue to do,” he said. “We’ll see what happens in the end, if it’s all a surprise or not.”