A historic day for Canada as Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) has won the 2012 Giro d'Italia.
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It has taken almost 40 minutes but Ryder Hesjedal finally lets his guard down when he's asked how it would feel to retain his Giro d'Italia crown. It's rare moment in which the typically conservative-talking Canadian gives an indication of his feelings ahead of the race.
"It would be amazing," he says before puffing out his cheeks, realising the magnitude of what a second title would mean. "I can't even imagine it right now," he adds.
"What needs to still happen for me to get to that point… it's going to be a huge challenge but if I can win the race again it would be unbelievable. To me… I just need to focus on what I need to do and not fixate on an outcome because that's just pretty tough to do. Am I confident that the win is possible? Yes, and I know how to do it."
Indeed he does. When Hesjedal screeched to a standstill on the Piazza del Duomo at the finish of the final TT in last year's race he'd added the final brush strokes to a Giro canvas that was as dogged as it was clinical.
After surviving the early ambushes in the first week, the Canadian had kept in touch with the leaders through a second week that was littered with mental as well as physical confrontations. With victory a distinct possibility as the race entered the crucial finale of stages, Hesjedal's measured application netted him his maiden grand tour. It may have lacked the glitz and glamour of an El Pistolero gun fight or the control of a Sky blitzkrieg but it nevertheless did the job.
And while there were those who criticised the 2012 edition of the Giro and Hesjedal's credentials as a grand tour winner, what mattered most was who possessed the maglia rosa in Milan. The fact that he'd made history as the first Canadian to win a grand tour, beaten the world number one rider in the process and effectively put the nails in the coffin of Ivan Basso's stage racing career seemed to go unnoticed.
If Hesjedal is to create another pièce de résistance this year, he must do so against a backdrop that includes a harder line up, higher expectations and the pressure of a defending champion.
Not that he's flustered by the proposition. Frankly it sometimes doesn't look like anything rattles the Canadian's cage. During last year's Giro, just as Hesjedal entered the fray of the GC battle, journalists began peppering him with questions about his chances. He'd bat each one back with relatively short anwers and little opportunity for a follow up. It became frustrating for fans who longed for a more confrontational style and higher quality soundbites but Hesjedal never obliged.
Twelve months on and a lot has changed. Hesjedal carries himself with the confidence of a winner and after a standout ride in Liege-Bastogne-Liege, he looks in contention for another Giro showdown. He may not be the favourite, he may not eventually triumph so far the season has been a quiet and understated success.
"It's been perfect," he tells Cyclingnews when asked about his preparation ahead of this year's race.
"It's been identical to last year and I felt better last week in the Ardennes than I did last year and I'm coming out of those races two kilos lighter than I was last year. I'm counting the days until the start of the Giro. I wouldn't say I'm nervous about the race but I'm certainly aware of what's coming up. I won the Giro last year and I'm more prepared in that sense than the guys who haven't won it before. I know it's going to be difficult but I'm going to give myself the best chance possible and that's the main thing."
Last year Hesjedal wasn't even ranked as a top ten contender by many in the media. His team knew he had the potential following a strong ride in the 2010 Tour de France. "If he gets through the first week, watch Ryder," his team boss Jonathan Vaughters had told Cyclingnews on the eve of the Giro.
For Hesjedal any media speculation is almost irrelevant. "I'm not concerned with what the media really thinks. I wasn't in the Gazzetta's top ten last year. I won the race last year and there was the ride I did a few weeks ago in Liege, if people aren't remembering me that's just fine," he says without a hint of complaint.
Perhaps part of the reason for Hesjedal's ability to stay focused and shy away from superfluous window dressing that decorates the sport is because he's not always been regarded as a winner. After Phonak folded in 2006 he returned back to the US and raced the domestic calendar for as season. After stints with Armstrong's squads and Andy Rhis' team it was a bump back to earth with races like the Giro and Vuelta replaced by a calendar whose highlights included the Mount Hood stage race.
"I can't say that I've ever fixated on something like that. I'm pretty realistic guy. I set goals that I think I can achieve. I did that last year and that opened up new challenges for me. When I was able to to get sixth at the Tour de France I thought 'yeah I can do this, I'm capable of performing over three weeks'. When I'm training and I'm envisaging racing, I envisage myself in that position of competing against the best. The big thing last year was that despite not being in that position before I showed that I could handle it."
Wiggins and Nibali
This year's Giro has been dominated by the shadows of Bradley Wiggins and Vincenzo Nibali - the pair who clashed at last year's Tour before Wiggins ran out the convincing winner. The expectation is that this year's Giro will be decided between the Sky and Astana showdown. While Hesjedal is confident of his own chances he's well aware that a scenario could unfold in which he better his ride from 2012 in terms of performance but still comes up short of victory.
"You have Bradley and he's clearly one of if not the best stage-race rider in the world right now with what he he did last year at the Tour. You have to respect that and he's obviously capable of winning. There's also Vincenzo there too so the field is almost as high as it could be. It means that I could conceivably ride better than I did last year and still not win the race. Only I'll know that feeling. Maybe I'm third or second and fifth but still ride a better race than last year. My standards are high though. I won the race last year and anything less people will say isn't as good but that's not always how it works in bike racing.
"Those final stages will be decisive but the end of the second week has some tough stages and anything can go wrong. If you have a bad day in that part of the race your chances could be over. If things are close and tight going into those final few stages then that final time trial can be critical. I've shown how I can ride in a third week of a grand tour. I know it's going to be brutal but that's going to mean there are a lot of opportunities."
Opportunity knocks but just don't expect Hesjedal to let his guard down over the coming weeks.
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