Ryder Hesjedal is not considered one of the big favourites for this year’s Giro d’Italia. He has not been listed alongside Alberto Contador, Fabio Aru, Rigoberto Uran, Richie Porte and Domenico Pozzovivo as contenders for a place on the final podium in Milan. Yet the big five should ignore the big Canadian at their peril. Hesjedal won the 2012 Giro d’Italia by flying under the radar and this year’s race is again his Grand Tour goal of the season.
“I’m not riding the Giro to shoot for fortieth,” he tells Cyclingnews in an exclusive interview as the days count down to the start of the Corsa Rosa in San Remo.
“If I look at 2012, when I won and at 2013, before I got sick and had to quit, and in 2014 considering the situation then, I believe I can be up there this year. I’ve got the experience and everything has gone well so far this season. I’m ready for the challenge. There are a lot of great riders in the Giro but we’ve all got to get through the race and see the final result in Milan. I back myself.”
Along with Damiano Cunego and Alberto Contador, Hesjedal is one of just three riders in this year’s Giro d’Italia who has won the Corsa Rosa.
“It’s really motivating when you’ve already won a big and important race like the Giro d’Italia,” he says. “When I look back at the 2012, how it unfolded, what happened, how I performed, the mistakes I made, the close battle with Joaquim Rodriguez and finally coming out on top and taking the maglia rosa, is a huge benefit. I know I can draw on all of that experience for this year.”
Hesjedal will lead the Cannondale-Garmin squad in Italy, where he will have key support from Tom Danielson in the mountains with talented young Italian Davide Formolo as his understudy. Also in the team are Colombian climber Javier Acevedo, Nathan Brown, Andre Cardoso, Alan Marangoni, Tom Jelte Slagter and Davide Villella. The Cannondale-Garmin team will be directed by Charly Wegelius, who was with Hesjedal when he won in 2012. Wegelius rode 15 Grand Tours as a domestique during his own career, including eight editions of the Giro d’Italia.
The team will probably target stage victories from breakaways, as it tries to land its first WorldTour victory after a modest start to the season, but Hesjedal will be the team’s protected leader and hope his experience and endurance will allow him to emerge in the high mountains of the third week.
He has had a quiet but solid build-up to the Giro d’Italia, kicking his season off at the Tour Down Under and polishing his racing form with a ten-day block of racing at the Giro del Trentino and Tour de Romandie. It is a different preparation to many of his overall rivals but one that should mean Hesjedal is also ready for the tough hill stages in Liguria and Tuscany. Hesjedal is advised and coached by former teammate David Millar this year.
“I’m feeling ready and really good. I rode Tirreno-Adriatico and the Volta a Catalunya, then stayed on a big training load until the Giro del Trentino, where I began the racing block that ended with Romandie. To get through ten race days with only three days between the races was great. The idea of my preparation via Trentino and Romandie is that I’ll be on it and ready to race. The final week is still quite a ways out but this year you have to be there from day one because it’s a pretty demanding first few stages. I don’t think you can ride into the race this year at all. You have to be there and be ready.
“Of course I won’t panic if I lose some time early on because the third week is where the race will be decided. I know the Giro is also about the long haul.
“You have to have a broad condition and hope it will not change dramatically from beginning to end. I’m confident I can improve through the first two weeks of the race too. Anything can happen in a Grand Tour, especially at the Giro, but usually the differences are made in third week and that’s when I plan to be at my very best. I think I have the strength and the experience to be up there.”
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Handling the pressure and fatigue
Hesjedal’s laid-back but focused attitude has always helped him deal with the pressure, the fatigue, the unforeseen problems and the stress of the Giro d’Italia. While other riders crack mentally and much as physically in the third week, Hesjedal stays calm and collected and ready to take an opportunities that come his way to gain time. He joined Nairo Quintana in the attack on the descent of the Stelvio in 2014. He was unable to stay with the Colombian on the climb to the finish in Val Martello but gained four minutes on his overall rivals and secured a top ten place in the final general classification.
Hesjedal handled his doping confession in 2013 in the same way. He was forced to admit that he doped in 2003 during his mountain bike career after an excerpt of a book written by Michael Rasmussen was published in which the Dane recalled teaching two other Canadian mountain bikers how to use EPO and cortisone. Hesjedal was not banned after an investigation by the Canadian anti-doping agency, the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES) but closed up and focused on his racing. He eventually talked about what happened in a long interview last summer with Times Colonist newspaper in Canada.
“I made the regrettable choice to give myself what I thought was a fair chance on an even playing field. I was an idiot,” he said in the interview, insisting he has never doped since 2004.
Hesjedal relaxed approach means he has done little route reconnaissance for the Giro d’Italia, only seeing the stage five climb to the finish at Abetone on the eve of Tirreno-Adriatico. However this will be Hesjedal’s fifteenth Grand Tour of his 13-year professional career.
“There’s a lot of planning goes on but it’s also about the moment,” he points out. “We’ve got a great team staff behind us and we’ll have everything ready for every stage, that’s what matters.”
The Cannondale-Garmin team crashed in the opening team time trial at the 2014 Giro d’Italia and again at the 2014 Vuelta a España and more recently at the Giro del Trentino. This year’s Giro d’Italia begins on Saturday with a 17.6km team time trial along a coastal bike path. It will be a test of nerve and speed as the teams travel at over 50km/h. However Hesjedal shrugs off any suggestion there is a fear of crashing within the team.
“No. No. We did a great ride in the Romandie TTT…” he points out. “We had guys coming out of the Ardennes with other guys coming into the race from training. But we still only lost 40 seconds. We worked well together and produced a good ride. We’re confident for the Giro team time trial. I think it’s better and natural to think about your last experience, so we’ll be fine. Thinking about last year’s Giro time trial doesn’t help at all.”
The long time trial and the key mountains
Hesjedal sees 59.4km individual time trial to Valdoddiadene on stage 14 as the gate to the final, decisive week of racing that includes the Mortirolo on stage 16 and then grand finale on the dirt roads of the Colle delle Finestre on stage 20.
“The time trial is long and it’s going to be important. I don’t think time trial specialists will be that strong after two weeks of racing,” he said.
“The Mortirolo is a steep climb but I showed I can handle grades like last year by winning the stage at the Vuelta to La Camperona. We climbed the Mortirolo in 2012 too. Rodriguez was attacking me on the lower slopes but I was able to follow him, do my ride and get over it in good shape before hitting the Stelvio and riding well again. That ride set up my shot at the pink jersey in the final time trial.”
Hesjedal took the pink jersey by 16 seconds in Milan, becoming the first Canadian to win the Giro d’Italia and giving Jonathan Vaughters’ Slipstream sports squad its first-ever Grand Tour victory.
“My strength is being strong in big moments like that,” Hesjedal points out. “There are going to be climbs that are better for me and climbs that are better for others. But we’ll deal with it day by day, just as we did in 2012. That’s what success in a Grand Tour is all about.”