Defending Giro champion talks ahead of Amstel
Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin Sharp) continues his build-up to a defence at the Giro d'Italia with the Ardennes Classics kicking off this weekend.
The Canadian rider has always been a factor in Amstel, Flèche and Liège, with top-ten placings in each event over the last few years, and with Dan Martin in a rich vein of form too, Garmin look well equipped for the week ahead.
For Hesjedal the focus is firmly on the Giro d'Italia, although he knows that his current form should mean he features in the upcoming races too.
"It's a bit like last year, I'll stick to a plan and I'll be at a good level in the Ardennes based off that. I feel good, I've a few stage races in my legs but the main aim is to get a result for the team at the Ardennes. If it's me getting the results or someone else, it doesn't matter," he told Cyclingnews from his base in Girona, Spain.
Garmin have endured a mixed season to date. Dan Martin and Andrew Talansky have picked up the squad's best results but the American outfit had a disappointing cobbled classics campaign with the squad depleted through injury, illness and a lack of form. Hesjedal, always a relaxed figure, certainly isn't feeling the pressure at this stage.
"There's always pressure to perform and get results. Bad luck is bad luck and people get sick so the results aren't there. It's a tough game and a tough sport and there are only so many spots on the podium. Are we looking to make up for some bad luck and a lack of results? Definitely, and we've had some consistent results in the past in these races."
Hesjedal finished second in Amstel in 2010 but his most consistent rides have come in Liège, where he was 9th last year. The course profile, coupled with the sheer distance of the race suit his characteristics as a rider.
"We had our best ride there last year with Dan Martin fifth and myself 9th, and with both of us active in the final. We'll be looking to improve on that. I love Liège and historically I've been consistent there. I think I can still improve there and be in the front of the race. I like all the Ardennes but Liège is the big one and it's definitely special."
The Giro d'Italia defence
While the Ardennes are important targets for Hesjedal, they form just one stepping stone towards the ultimate ambition of retaining his Giro d'Italia crown. Last year the Garmin rider used a combination of tactics to win the race but arguably one of his assets was the fact that he wasn't considered a genuine contender for the race until the end of the first week.
His win wasn't just based off reliable climbing and strong time trialing: he stayed upright during a tense first week too, and used his team support superbly.
"The goal for me is to arrive at the Giro in the best way, like I did last year. That's what I'm focused on but that doesn't mean I can't take opportunities in the races leading up to May," he told Cyclingnews.
"It's a big motivation and there's a big sense of accomplishment to be where I am in my career. I'm satisfied but also motivated to keep on improving. There are lots of things that change you as an athlete but for me wining the Giro was definitely a big milestone. But I've still got to go out there and train every day and work hard. I'm still the same rider. Things aren't any easier."
As the winner of a grand tour one might expect an athlete to lose focus in the time after such a success but Hesjedal appears just as committed as ever.
"I've been pretty good in keeping things the same, and I've made sure that I keep the time that I need for training and racing. That's gone perfectly and I've had the exact same off-season as last year, with as few distractions as possible. The team have been supportive too because I'm sure there were twenty more things they would have liked me to do for sponsors but they know what's important and respect what I need to do. It's been perfect in that sense and I've not been stretched."
Wiggins and Nibali
This year the Giro has arguably its best field in years with Vincenzo Nibali and Bradley Wiggins both making it the central objectives of their individual seasons.
"They're both doing exactly what they think they need to do. I've not raced Nibali this year but everyone has a different path to the Giro and we'll see when we get there. That's what counts. Personally I've not been worrying about other people and I'll start to look at them during the battle at the Giro."
"I'm aware of where I'm at and what I need to do and I enjoy that challenge. Most people know I'm pretty relaxed and if anything I'm probably more relaxed than at any point in my career having won the Giro."
Not that Wiggins and Nibali are the only riders Hesjedal will have to contend with if he's to win back-to-back titles. With Alberto Contador fixing his gaze on the Tour de France this year a number of rivals have targeted the Giro as their number-one race and Hesjedal is well aware that even if he rides as well, or even better, than he did 12 months ago, victory is far from assured.
"If you look at the riders lining up for the Giro, there's not just Wiggins and Nibali, there's a motivated Gesink, Samuel Sanchez, Basso, Scarponi and Cadel Evans has thrown his hat in it. It's an incredible field. It's always been a special race and I'm going back as the defending champion to that scenario. It's great for the race and the competition."
"Will it be harder this year? The race is hard enough. Could I ride better than I did in 2012 and not win? That's possible but we'll see how the race shakes out. But last year I beat the world number-one rider in a battle that was day-in-day-out so there's never a shortage in the field when it comes to tough race."