Ryder Hesjedal was one of several big name riders to end their professional careers at Il Lombardia on Saturday. The last WorldTour race of the 2016 season marked the end of the road for the 2012 Giro d’Italia winner and also the rider he beat to take the maglia rosa that year, Joaquim Rodriguez.
Hesjedal had been hoping to retire quietly - slip out of the back of the peloton at Lombardia like former teammate David Zabriskie did in 2013. He had already said goodbye on home soil while riding the Canadian WorldTour races in Quebec and Montreal and was just hoping to finish Il Lombardia and say a final symbolic goodbye from Italy, where he won the most important race of his 16-year road racing career.
This final interview almost never happened. Hesjedal initially agreed to sit down on the eve of Il Lombardia but then tried to cancel, perhaps preferring to avoid looking back over his career at the very moment it was about to end. Fortunately he changed his mind.
It is clearly a moment of huge change for Hesjedal. He insists he has no definite plans for the future - for the rest of his life after professional cycling - believing he needs time to decompress, recover and reflect before deciding exactly what he wants to do after sacrificing so much of his own life for his professional career.
Hesjedal will be 36 in December and began his professional career in mountain biking back in 1999 before switching to full-time road racing in 2005. His career spanned 18 seasons professionally and over 20 years including his time as a full-time mountain bike racer at junior level. Hesjedal won silver medals in the junior, under-23 and elite categories at the 1998, 2001 and 2003 World Mountain Bike Championships before turning to road racing and eventually carving out a successful second career.
The 2012 Giro d’Italia is the highlight of his career but he also took stage wins at the Vuelta a Espana in 2009 and 2014, finished second in the 2010 Amstel Gold Race, and was fifth in the 2010 Tour de France.
The highs were combined with several lows, including injury and illness and the moment he was forced to reveal he had doped during his mountain bike career. He confessed and apologised but avoided any kind of sanctions because of the statute of limitations.
“I’m the only one who knows what it was like for me to go through it. It was my burden to bear,” he says emotionally during the interview.
In 2015, Hesjedal finished fifth in the Giro d’Italia, prompting him to make another bid for the Italian Grand Tour with Trek-Segafredo after spending nine seasons with Jonathan Vaughters’ Slipstream squad. His hopes of further success in the Giro were ended by illness and he soon decided to end his professional career and start thinking about a life without the pressures and demands of racing.
His carefully worded and often emotional answers during the interview confirm he is still working through that process.
Cyclingnews: Ryder, how does it feel to be at the end of your professional career? Relief? Sadness? Happiness?
Ryder Hesjedal: I don’t know if it’s the end. It’s the end of my career racing at WorldTour level but you never know what the future will hold. We’ll see, you create your own destiny. Every ending is also a new beginning.
CN: Are you saying you will perhaps continue to race somehow?
RH: I don’t know. I really haven’t made any decisions with that regard. You don’t know what you will do, until you go to that next place. When you sit around, you get a bit anxious, so there are a lot of ways to push yourself out there and stay active.
CN: So is it perhaps better to call it the end of a chapter?
RH: For sure. It’s pretty defined; I won’t race at WorldTour level again. But for me a lot of my cycling is about riding the bike and that’s not going to stop. That’s what I enjoy and is definitely not over. Now I can ride as long and as hard as I want. I guess they’re the benefits of not having to race anymore.
When you make the decision, you don’t really know what its like till it’s really over. So far things have been the same. The difference will be in January when the training camps roll around I don’t need to pack your bags and travel and you don’t need to suffer so much on the bike.
CN: Is it a difficult moment or an enjoyable moment?
RH: I’ve just been trying to enjoy it. I didn’t really want a big goodbye. I’m not like that. I enjoyed the Canadian races and got a lot of affection from the people there. It would have been to easy to stop in Montreal but I this feels better. I just wanted to finish the season properly. Italy was important for my career and I wanted one last spell in Europe and at my base in Girona, Spain. My race days weren’t that high and I wanted to do as much as I could for the team too.
CN: When did you reach your decision to quit professional cycling? Perhaps after the difficulty of abandoning the Giro d’Italia? Was that a turning point?
RH: I think you naturally get to an age when the decision to quit starts creeping into every rider’s mind. That was a lot of it for me but there are also different circumstances too. It’s not easy to quit but it has to happen at some point, you whack it in your mind and deal with it and see what the outcome is.
There wasn’t really one factor that made up my mind. I just hope I didn’t make a rash decision; I’ve tried to work it through it with myself. There were plenty of days on the bike when I reflected on things but there wasn’t a specific moment when I took the decision. It was over time. It came naturally.
CN: Looking back at your career, your Giro d’Italia victory stands out but other moments too, including your mountain bike career.
RH: I think my career started when I went to my first junior mountain bike world championships in Australia in 1996. It was the first time I really travelled outside of Canada and so that was the starting point for me and it was the moment I decided what I wanted to do the sport. I was only 15 in 1996 but I raced with a special exemption because I was already racing as a junior in Canada and was second at the national championships.
As a last-year junior in 1998 I raced with the elites and finished second in the junior worlds despite only being 17. After that I went professional in 1999 and travelled to all the World Cup races. Racing is the only thing I know. I did six years as a professional and so this is actually my second retirement.
Early MTB career and the best years at Slipstream
CN: Why did you decide to switch from mountain biking to road racing? It can’t have been easy.
RH: I was doing a lot of road training anyway because you can’t train in the mud for hours. I’d always raced on the road and was doing national projects when mountain biking. In 2001 or 2002 I rode the Tour of Langkawi for example, so I could see there was a lot more to strive towards on the road. I liked the idea of the challenge of the iconic events like the Tour de France. I first raced for the Rabobank development team and then joined US Postal in 2004. For a while I was trying to racing at the highest level in both sports. But it came clear to me that I was happy with what I’d achieved in mountain bike but there was so much more to do on the road. It was time to make the switch.
It was hard, for sure. It was brutal. It was 2005. At first you don’t know the races, you have relocate to Europe and everything is so different. You also start at the very bottom of the tree and nobody cares about you. You have to just try to survive. I had a couple of hard years but I survived them. I suppose it’s all part of it and it makes you what you are. I was beat up and so that why I went back to North America and rode for the Health Net team in 2007. I still trained and raced hard but it was an important year for me to understand myself. Since then I think I’ve had a good run.
CN: You were part of the Slipstream set up at Garmin and then Cannondale for nine years. You were probably the longest-serving member of the team and part of the team’s development and success over the years, culminating with your Giro d’Italia victory in 2012.
RH: The team has come a long way over the years but it was good to be part of it. If you look at the team at our first camp in Silver city in Mexico in January and then again at how we were functioning at the Tour de France come July, you wouldn’t think it was the same team. But everything started to work. I think the first race we did in Europe was the GP Marseillaise and I was third. I got some good results because I was very happy with the environment. That started it all for me. I was eighth in Tirreno-Adriatico and most riders would be happy with that even now.
What we were able to achieve was amazing. We had to fight for everything but we did it. We won the team time trial at the Giro d’Italia in Palermo and that was incredible. It was also my first Grand Tour finish after two tries at the Giro in 2005 and the Vuelta in 2006.
At the Tour de France Christian Vande Velde rode a top five and I was there helping him and getting in breaks. I went from being a beat up, smashed up rider, back in North America and then eight months later I was back in the big show in Europe and feeling good. If you look through my results from then through 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012, there was good progression. That’s when the 10 years of hard work started to pay dividends. I always worked hard and always too every opportunity I could. It was an exciting time and time I’m most proud of.
Victory at the Giro d’Italia and the suffering to get there
CN: You won the Giro d’Italia by just 16 seconds, beating Joaquim Rodriguez, but you won it with consistency during the three weeks of racing.
RH: To win a Grand Tour you’ve got be perfect; you can’t make mistakes. Looking back to that Giro d’Italia, I did what I needed to do in every moment. That was the only way I could win it. I always kept myself in the picture and never had a bad day. That led to the opportunity to go for the victory. People don’t tend to notice that Rodriguez picked up about 30 bonus seconds during the race and so it wasn’t that close on the road; I had to gain that time on him too. I did that everyday and then won it in the final time trial.
CN: Was it an emotional moment in your life?
RH: For sure. It still is. If I look at how hard the sport is, and think what lots of people don’t manage to achieve, that makes a Grand Tour win very special. Having won a Grand Tour made it a little easier to finally call it a day because I’d achieved a big goal. I’d ticked it off and that achievement makes me happy to have it. I can finish my career happy.
CN: You probably went through difficult times, too, but most people don’t see that side of a rider’s life. For example quitting this year’s Giro d’Italia due to illness perhaps led you to end your career now?
RH: Cycling is incredibly hard. I’ve given 20 years to pushing through the pain barrier. If anyone put 20 years into anything, like pro cyclists do, they’d be ready to move on.
I guess we’re hard headed. I know what I’ve done and what I’ve faced. I’m proud of myself. It’s not easy – it’s a big commitment – but also you get to a point that it’s time to look at other things in life. You spend a lot of time away from your family and it’s never easy. Over the years it becomes a big chunk of your life, so it’ll be good to get back to things that really matter.
Confessing to doping and waiting for the next chapter
CN: You faced a difficult moment in 2013 when it emerged that Michael Rasmussen helped you learn how to dope during your mountain bike career. You’ve rarely spoken about it. Is there anything you want to say now? What was that moment like?
RH: I don’t know if that’s easy to put it in its place. People don’t understand what happens in moments like that but you’ve got to face up to, and accept it. It was still not even a year after winning the Giro d’Italia when I was in a room [with anti-doping investigators] telling the story and putting it out there. If we talk about the highs and lows of cycling, then I suppose I’ve done it all.
I had to take responsibility for my actions and I feel I did that and did the best I could. I’d already moved on from it because it happened back in 2003 but it was suddenly there again and I had to deal with it. I’m the only one who knows what it was like for me to go through it. It was my burden to bear. I went and came back to do my job and do what I could afterwards. I can’t change what happened.
CN: What’s next for you? What’s the next chapter of your career? Most people don’t imagine you as a directeur sportif.
RH: I’m not going to be a directeur sportif. Nothing against them – they do an amazing job; I just don’t think I could do it. To be honest, I don’t know what I’m going to do. T.B.D. No plans.
I honestly haven’t gone to that place where I feel I needed to decide what I do next. So far it’s been about getting thorough the season. I only took the decision to quit a few months ago and so once I get my apartment in Spain packed up, get back to Canada, decompress and take a real break, I think that’s when I’ll reflect and start to look to the future.
Maybe what I want to do will be different in three months, so I’m just going to let it run its course. For sure I’ll find something to do but I don’t know what it’ll be.
I’ll still ride for sure. I love to ride. That’s why it’s not really the end. It’s always been about riding a bike. I found racing after riding for a while, I raced for 20 years, and now I’ll just ride again. It has come full circle.