As a pre-teen, I remember flipping through Mountain Bike magazine, Ryder Hesjedal and Roland Green had a spread where they were showcasing their cars. At the time Hesjedal was just flourishing, challenging Roland Green for mountain bike supremacy. He had bleached blonde hair, wore Gucci shoes, raced for Subaru-Gary Fisher, and drove off from races in a Lexus. From the eyes of a twelve-year-old mountain bike racer, Ryder was the epitome of cool.
With the success he had mountain biking, it’s surprising that he’s only now becoming a household name. At the height of his off-road career, Hesjedal was an international star on the World Cup Mountain Bike circuit, winning both a World Cup race and capturing the overall title for Under-23 in 2002.
Hesjedal’s early career was marked by a series of runner-up finishes, including three silver medals at the world championships in 1998 (Junior) and 2001 (Espoir) , and a heartbreaking loss in Elite in 2003 where he faded on the final lap. In many ways, his success was defined by these performances; all the talent in the world but consistently short on luck.
Although the summer of 2004 was supposed to be Ryder’s ascension to cycling dominance, it turned out to be a series of mishaps. A favourite for the 2004 Athens Olympics, his dream was cut short by what he called “a mechanical, a flat tire in the Olympics and that was really just the demise.” He circled the World Championships for redemption, but a crash a week prior prevented his participation and ended his mountain bike career prematurely. Reflecting, Hesjedal explained: “I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but it definitely helped me refocus and leave that behind, take on a new challenge and move forward. It was kind of easy to move on to the big show, the dream… It was hard, but I was ready.” Moving forward meant significantly less dirt and significantly more paved roads.
At the same time Ryder was cutting his teeth within the peloton, my interest in cycling faded. He spent a few years bouncing around the pro-ranks, moving from Rabobank TT3, to US Postal, to Phonak, to Health Net-Maxxis, before finally settling with Slipstream. Although riding for some of the biggest teams, he rode as a domestic, the most selfless role in cycling. It wasn’t until he signed with Jonathan Vaughters squad that he was suddenly a veteran rider, and a talented one at that. Slipstream and Hesjedal developed simultaneously, with some combination of freedom, dedication, and luck they quickly arrived near the top echelon of the cycling world. Slipstream has transformed into Garmin-Barracuda with Ryder as one of the team’s centerpieces.
Despite shocking the cycling world with his win at the 2012 Giro, I think two significant moments in his road career were a precursor to his “instant” success. First, his breakaway win on the twelfth stage of the 2009 Vuelta demonstrated that he could win at the top of the sport. Second, the opportunity that followed Christian Vande Velde’s crash during the second stage of the 2010 Tour. Hesjedal assumed the position of Garmin’s general classification rider, and established himself as a contender during the seventeenth stage, where he finished fourth on the Col du Tourmalet, before eventually arriving in Paris in 7th position (6th after Contador was stripped of the title).
For me, the most shocking part of Ryder Hesjedals 2012 Giro d’Italia win, was that a North American Grand Tour contender actually came to race, rather than simply ride the Giro.
I, for one don’t think that Ryder Hesjedal ever considered himself a Giro d’Italia winner. When we sat down less than eight months ago, he seemed transfixed on the Tour de France, in similar fashion to the Schleck brothers or Armstrong, everything centered around three weeks in July. For Hesjedal the idea of riding the Giro or Veulta in favour of the Tour seemed sacrilegious:
“Right now, the rhythm of my program has been good, it’s tough ‘cause the Giro is getting harder, and harder you see guys staying away from (doing both) the Giro-Tour, and clearly what I do for the Tour works well… You’re not going to hurry to change that stuff”
Unless your racing schedule is turned upside down.
In my eyes, the moment that Ryder was selected to ride the Giro, he immediately became a favourite for the maglia rosa. Like Cadel Evans showcased two years prior, the Giro marks the opportunity to reinvent yourself as a rider, all Ryder needed was a chance. The course tailor made for Hesjedal’s diesel engine style of racing: with the most difficult racing not coming until the third week, and an individual time trial on the final day, it was his to lose. A substantial factor into why few thought Hesjedal had the talent to win a Grand Tour has less to do with his riding, and more to do with his demeanor. His goals sounded more like those from a Cat. 5 racer than a Grand Tour contender. When I pressed him for his ambitions last September, he replied calmly that they were:
“Just to keep improving, and just keep knocking on the door on the big races and continue to do what I’m doing. I’ve been part of some big victories, had some on my own and the role that I play on the team is significant…that’s the goal, to stay where I’m at, and keep chipping away”
And chipping away is exactly what he did, only he went from big victories, to a major one. The process was expedited faster than fans, media, his competitors or Ryder himself could have believed even three weeks ago. Despite his prior Tour finishes, and Vande Velde as his head lieutenant, Hesjedal was best ranked as a dark horse. Garmin-Barracuda General Manager Jonathan Vaugthters kept saying that Ryder only got better in the third week, it just seems that no one thought he’d be a serious rival to match the climbing abilities of Basso, Rodriguez, or Scarponi. To be fair, they were right; Hesjedal didn’t match them but instead left them behind.
When Ryder wore the pink jersey after the seventh stage, a Canadian leading the Giro, everyone thought it was a novelty. After he dropped Rodriguez, Basso, Schleck, and Scarponi in a decisive attack on Stage 14 from Cherasco to Cervinia and bettered them by 26 seconds, he became a contender. Ensuing his attack on the Alpe di Pampeago during stage 19– it suddenly became his Giro to lose. Everyone had made up their minds that Hesjedal would win the Giro barring a miracle ride by Rodriguez.
As for Ryder, he explained, “it wasn’t until 5km to go, (that) I believed that the Giro was mine.” A fitting win for a rider who takes nothing for granted and has worked for years to get to the top.