One of the many traditions of the Giro d'Italia is a press release from Gianni Savio's Androni Giocattoli team on the Monday after the race, which proudly announces the total number of kilometres his riders have spent off the front over the previous three weeks.
Ryder Hesjedal (Cannondale-Garmin) may want to consider performing a tally of his own this year, after another day of aggression on stage 18 moved him up one more place in the overall standings (he now sits in ninth place) and set him up for further gains in the next two days in the Alps.
When Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) bounded clear at the foot of the first category Monte Ologno with some 45 kilometres to race, the assumption was that the Spaniard would not be seen again until the finish on the other side of the mountain in Verbania.
Even after second-placed Mikel Landa (Astana), who crashed before the climb, re-joined the group of podium contenders, they were unable to make any significant inroads into Contador's lead, yet Hejsedal was somehow able to claw his way back to within sight of the maglia rosa on the approach to the summit.
"He went pretty early but I settled in a little bit just to see what the other guys were doing," Hesjedal said afterwards. "Then I figured I'd go as well. [Kenny] Elissonde from FDJ got on my wheel but I just rode him off my wheel and then I could see Alberto there, so I just locked in on him and didn't worry about what was happening behind. I was happy with that."
From the television images, it initially seemed as if Contador had the freedom of the mountain as he neared the top, and it came as something of a surprise when race radio announced that Hesjedal was now just 10 seconds behind him. Shortly afterwards, however, a bearded figure in lime green appeared in the background of the shot, and he made contact as they crested the summit.
After Tuesday's stage over the Mortirolo, Hesjedal had expressed frustration at the zealousness of Contador's Tinkoff-Saxo team in shutting down breakaways that posed no threat to his overall lead. He had no qualms, however, about becoming an ally of circumstance of the maglia rosa as they tackled the plateau over the top of the Monte Ologno and began the long drop to Verbania. For good measure, his teammate Davide Villella, dropped from the early break, would also lend a hand.
"I had everything to benefit: I'm not racing Alberto," Hesjedal said. "So once I knew I had Davide there and we were riding – if Alberto wants to sit on in the pink jersey, that's his choice. He contributed, and that's fine, and that's all you can ask for.
"At that point, there's not much to it, you're just going as hard as you can. It's nice to have company in that situation and I think between the three of us – or certainly me and Davide – we did the best we could."
Hesjedal was one of five riders on Thursday's stage to have his bike taken for testing by UCI inspectors as soon as he crossed the line. Within minutes, the Canadian was reunited with his bike, which had been given the all-clear, and before pedalling further along the lake front to the Cannondale-Garmin team bus, he stopped to talk with reporters.
For the second successive Giro, Hesjedal is wading upwards through the overall standings thanks to an aggressive final week of racing. Twelve months ago, he was the only man to resist Nairo Quintana at Val Martello, a performance that helped to lift him to ninth overall by the finish. He occupies the same position after Thursday's stage.
"I think if you look at my performances in the third week of Grand Tours, that's been my strength: I can handle the volume and the load," he said. "I ride well in the third week, that's the idea and that's what I’m doing, so I'm happy."
And yet, no matter how this Giro finishes, Hesjedal will surely look back on the race with a tinge of regret. It's a hypothetical, of course, but were it not for the five minutes he conceded on stage 4 to La Spezia, he would currently be lying in the top five on general classification.
"I'm already happy with this tour but it does get a bit frustrating, especially when I'm riding like this, what could have been when you look back. But it's ok," he said. "I've been going pretty hard, my legs are still good. We'll see what happens."
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