Ryder Hesjedal is hoping to surprise pundits and rivals again as the Canadian rolls into the Tour de France bolstered by his dramatic Giro d’Italia victory.
Little over a month ago, few gave Hesjedal much of a shot to win the Giro, but he did just that, becoming the first Canadian to ride victorious in a grand tour.
Hesjedal now heads to Belgium this week in a very similar situation that he faced ahead of the Giro. Despite winning the maglia rosa, not many will be pegging him as a five-star favorite to win the Tour on a course long on time trials.
That’s just fine for Hesjedal, who will be headlining the newly branded Garmin-Sharp squad for the Tour with no pressure but full of confidence.
“I do not have that pressure in the sense that I have based my season on the Tour. I focused on the Giro and I won,” Hesjedal told VeloNews. “I can go out and enjoy myself at the Tour.”
Giro-Tour double winners
1949: Fausto Coppi
1964: Jacques Anquetil
1970: Eddy Merckx
1974: Merckx (also won world title)
1982: Bernard Hinault
1987: Stephen Roche (plus world title)
1992: Miguel Indurain
1998: Marco Pantani
Garmin-Sharp will bring its most experienced and deepest squad ever to the Tour, with Hesjedal headlining as GC captain alongside Christian Vande Velde and Tom Danielson.
Hesjedal’s dramatic Giro victory last month changed everything for him and his team. While he was always consistent in grand tours, he had never reached the podium nor was he considered a threat for final victory of a three-week tour.
That’s different now after Hesjedal edged out a 16-second victory over Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) to win the pink jersey in the gripping final-day time trial duel in Milan.
While the Tour was always on his schedule, Hesjedal waited more than a week to let the froth settle after winning the Giro before confirming he would race in July.
Sixth overall in the 2010 Tour, Hesjedal now has the added pressure and expectations that come with his Giro victory.
“It’s nice to be in that position. I am going to try,” Hesjedal said. “I am going to the race to do the best result possible, the best result for Garmin. That’s what’s got us here so far.”
And with that comes the inevitable question of whether he can become the first rider since Marco Pantani in 1998 to win the Giro and Tour in the same season.
Only seven riders have pulled off the Giro-Tour double, but the newly confident Hesjedal is not stepping back from the challenge. He just wants to remain realistic.
“Now everyone says, ‘OK, now you can do the double,’” Hesjedal told VeloNews. “I am going to the Tour in the same way I go to all the races, and focus on trying to have the best ride possible. At the Giro, I was able to win, and at the Tour, I go with the same mindset. I do not fixate on the end result. There are too many pitfalls and hurdles that can happen along the way.”
Hesjedal is no stranger to riding two grand tours in one season.
In 2008, the raced the Giro and Tour before competing in the Beijing Olympic Games. The following season, he raced the Tour and then the Vuelta a España, where he won a mountaintop stage finale for his first grand tour stage win.
“I know I can be at a high level for the Tour,” he said. “Especially after I’ve gotten the best form of my life in the Giro, so you never know. That’s why we have the race.”
Too many TTs?
With the Giro occupying his season, Hesjedal didn’t spend too much time worrying about the Tour until the past few weeks.
After celebrating quietly in Milan, Hesjedal stayed in Europe, returning to his home base in Girona, Spain, to recover from the Giro effort. He resumed light training a week after the Giro and has since stepped up his efforts to top up his form, with the idea of hitting another peak in the final week of the Tour.
Because the Giro was the main focus of the first part of the season dating back to November, the Tour only recently entered Hesjedal’s radar screen.
“All I am thinking about is being in the best possible shape for the Tour. There is no sense knowing every stage of the course or analyzing it all day, when all you to do is worry about what you’ve got to do each day,” he said. “What’s more important is that I can be at a good level for three weeks. After winning the Giro, I have that confidence.”
This year’s Tour course, at least on paper, doesn’t necessarily favor Hesjedal.
With just over 100km of individual time trials, everyone is looking to Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) and Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky) as the five-star favorites. Hesjedal says it’s not such a bad thing that Evans and Wiggins, and their respective teams, have to carry the weight of expectations on their shoulders.
“Those guys are very strong in the TTs, so with that many time trial kilometers, you will see a lot of riders taking a chance and being aggressive when it makes sense,” he said. “It should make for an exciting race.”
It was Hesjedal’s time trialing abilities, however, that helped him secure the Giro.
Hesjedal took early decisive gains on Italian rivals Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) and Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale), as well as Rodríguez, that he was able to protect later in the decisive climbing stages.
The absence of a team time trial in this year’s Tour will hurt Hesjedal. Garmin has been one of the strongest in the discipline for half a decade, winning the TTT stage in last year’s Tour and taking important gains in this year’s Giro that proved critical to his final overall victory in Italy.
“I have shown that my time trial has improved. Those guys (Wiggins and Evans) are at a higher level, but I can hold my own,” he said. “I have my own ideas. We’ll see how the race plays out.”
The absence of Andy Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan), sidelined with injury, will also not play well for Hesjedal. Schleck would have expected to play the aggressor on the mountain stages, something that Hesjedal could have used to his advantage against Evans and Wiggins.
Other podium contenders, such as Robert Gesink (Rabobank) and Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), will also have to play an aggressive tactic in the three summit finales to hope to shake the strong time trialists.
Whatever happens, Hesjedal knows he will be able to count on the support of his teammates and vows to go on the attack if his legs are up to the task.
“They’re giving me the team leader status. I have had that weight on my shoulders for the Giro since November and I think I’ve proven my abilities to play that role. The team wants to keep it that way for the Tour,” he said. “That’s a huge honor and I want to go to the Tour with the same mindset and approach, but it’s not about Ryder, it’s about Garmin achieving the best possible result.”
Hesjedal also expects the Tour to be a chance to pay back teammate Vande Velde’s help during the Giro. Hesjedal will start Saturday in Liège as the team’s GC captain for the Tour, but Vande Velde will be right there as a second option.
Fourth overall in the 2008 Tour, Vande Velde says he’s in his best condition since that breakthrough Tour performance.
Hesjedal said Vande Velde was critical to his Giro victory and vows to be there to pay him back if the right scenario plays out.
“Christian was instrumental in the Giro win. He is a leader and he’s been like that the entire time he’s been on the team,” Hesjedal said. “I know he’s put a lot into this Tour and I know he will be at a high level for the Tour. We can watch out for each other’s back.”
Having two GC options will be better for everyone, Hesjedal says. Danielson, who broke through for a top 10 in his Tour debut last year, will also be a strong card to play over three weeks.
“Christian has based his season around being ready for the Tour. Mine was the Giro and now he’s building for the Tour,” Hesjedal said. “Christian has had a little quieter spring than me. He got sick at Catalunya but he was able to come to the Giro and support me there. He got to a very good level at the end of the Giro. I am confident that he will be even stronger for the Tour.”
Hesjedal is grateful for the help Vande Velde provided during the Giro, both on the road and behind the scenes. The pair roomed together during the Giro and the experienced Vande Velde helped Hesjedal stay focused on the race as the expectations and pressure grew in the final week.
“Christian just did everything, from being the captain on the road to helping in the mountains to keeping things relaxed on the team bus and the hotel,” he said. “He has so much experience. He is a huge asset. He’s not just a friend and a teammate, he brings so much to the table. We’ve shown that ability to work well together.”
And what about all the hoopla back in Canada in the wake of his historic Giro victory?
Hesjedal earned the “weight of a nation” moniker a few years ago, but there is a growing hysteria that came with his pink jersey. Instead of returning home to reap the rewards of his win, Hesjedal stayed buckled down in Europe to remain focused on the Tour and a return to the Olympic Games in London to represent Canada’s lone men’s road Olympic slot.
“That’s going to have to wait until August,” he said of heading home to Canada. “I know everyone is very excited about, but I have a few more races to do here in Europe. It will be nice to get back there and enjoy being home.”
With the Tour and Olympics still on tap, Hesjedal is hoping to give Canadian fans even more reason to celebrate by the time he returns home later this summer.