Among the throng of spandex-clad citizen riders stomping and paper-boying their way up the Marmot Basin climb before stage 1 at the Tour of Alberta last week, one familiar face stood out from the rest. Ryder Hesjedal, the 2012 Giro d'Italia champion from just west of Alberta in British Columbia, was back in the saddle to support the race.
After Hesjedal, the only Canadian to win a Grand Tour, cleaned up and changed into clothing appropriate for the podium presentation he was about to take part in, Cyclingnews spoke briefly with him about current Canadian sensation Michael Woods (Cannondale-Drapac), who is seventh at the Vuelta a Espana after 17 stages. Hesjedal also commented on the as-yet-unresolved sponsorship issues with his former team, the Slipstream Sports-owned program that is now sponsored by Cannondale.
On the subject of Woods, Hesjedal was full of superlatives for the 30-year-old former collegiate middle-distance runner who signed his first 'pro' contract with a Continental team in 2013.
"It's incredible," Hesjedal said. "I think everyone saw that he had the capability as an engine a little while back already now. But it takes time, and you can see that. He's been very upfront and honest about that. It's not easy to find your way in the bunch, especially if you come to cycling a bit later.
"I saw him on the ground pretty much every time I raced with him, which is hard, but every time he's bounced back up, and that's what it takes. Now he's there, really, getting a good crack at it. Where he can go from here, nobody knows, and that's what's exciting. It's great to see."
Woods moved from US Continental team Optum Pro Cycling – now Rally Cycling – to Cannondale-Drapac last season and quickly made an impression with two third-place stage finishes and fifth overall at the Tour Down Under. He started his first Grand Tour this year at the Giro d'Italia, where he scored three top-10 stage results and finished 38th overall.
He climbed to 10th overall at the Vuelta during stage 3, then slowly moved up to eighth by stage 15 with a series of consistent performances that saw him stick with some of the best climbers and general classification riders in the world. He slipped back to 10th on stage 16 when he lost 3:40 to stage winner and overall leader Chris Froome (Team Sky), but he surged up to seventh on Wednesday with another strong climb up Los Machuco, which featured gradients of more than 25 per cent.
Woods, who is currently 6:33 down on Froome and 4:20 behind Wilco Kelderman in third, will have another chance to use his explosive climbing legs to move up the general classification ladder when the Vuelta peloton tackles the Angliru on stage 20.
Hesjedal, who said Woods' development with Cannondale and approach to the season has been spot on, indicated there could be a Grand Tour stage win for Woods in the not-to-distant future
"He has the qualities, clearly coming from his running background, he has the skills in his set right away, that short sort of explosive capacity, and that's a lot of bike racing," Hesjedal said.
"I think he really didn't have a good look at real long climbs, obviously what you need for overall and major stage racing. Now he's gotten a good look at that to get through the Giro this year and then be where he is in the Vuelta right now. It's great.
"I know from my own experience, the first time that I got two Grand Tours under my belt in the same season, that only helps you as a cyclist and helps that development that you just can't replicate unless you go through it," Hesjedal said. "So I think he's done a perfect season in that respect, and it's coming through in the race."
A 'huge loss' if Cannondale-Drapac folds
Hesjedal, 36, retired from cycling after last season. He rode his final year with Trek-Segafredo, but he spent nine of his 16 professional seasons on the Garmin and Cannondale teams owned by Slipstream Sports. Hesjedal, who was on Garmin Barracuda in 2012 when he won the Giro, said the team's current sponsorship woes are troubling.
"It's obviously not a good situation, but I think right now they just need to do what they're doing, and I hope it works out,” he said.
"Obviously I have lots of friends, former teammates and colleagues that I worked lot of years with – not just riders, but staff and everyone it takes, it's really a family effort. You don't want to see anyone in a bad situation, but even more so when it's someone you know and have experience, friendship and history with. On all levels, it would be a huge loss to have an organisation like that go away."