Hesjedal becomes first Canadian to lead Giro d'Italia

Three years after he claimed Canada’s first ever Vuelta a España stage victory, Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Barracuda) made history again on Saturday when he became his country’s first ever leader of the Giro d’Italia.

In 2009, Hesjedal outsprinted David García Dapena of Spain at the summit finish of Velefique on an insanely hard Vuelta stage which contained more than 6,000 metres of climbing. Fast forward three years, and the Canadian’s fifth place on another taxing mountain stage netted the 31-year-old former MTBer the Giro lead.

As Hesjedal pointed out, he had come painfully close to taking the lead on Friday, but had fallen short by a tiny margin. On Saturday, he was able to put that right.

Although former double Giro stage winner Tyler Farrar’s abandon due to injury has been a major blow for both the American sprinter and Garmin-Barracuda, Hesjedal’s taking pink is another highpoint in an exceptionally successful first week.

Even before Hesjedal moveded into pink, Garmin-Barracuda had taken the team time trial and led the race for two days with Ramunas Navardauskas. At the moment Garmin-Barracuda also head the teams classification and the young riders competition with Peter Stetina.

“This is just incredible, yesterday was very frustrating, there were really unfortunate events like Tyler crashing. We did what we could at the end but I couldn’t get the jersey by 17 seconds. It was hard to take and I was pretty upset,” Hesjedal said.

“But the team has really kept its confidence and they were fantastic today. Peter and Christian [Vande Velde] were never far from my side on the climb and then Christian put me in the perfect position before the final approach.”

“This is definitely the product of very good team-work. It’s great to get the jersey back in our camp after the great ride that we’ve done.”

Although his Grand Tour debut as a second year pro with Discovery Channel in the Giro back in 2005 was not exactly pleasant - he crashed in stage five and then struggled on for another ten days before quitting - his stage win in the 2009 Vuelta and seventh overall in the 2010 Tour de France confirmed that the former Canadian National Time Trial Champion could perform well in three week races. Then last autumn, Garmin proposed that he lead the team in the Giro.

“I can climb well, although maybe not with the best of the best, I can time trial and get through hard days,” Hesjedal, who was a professional MTBer for six years before switching to the road in 2004, said.

“In the Grand Tours I tend to do best in the last week, and obviously there’s a lot to gain there.”

Asked what Canadians would make of him leading the Giro and what he thought his compatriots knew about the race, Hesjedal joked “I think they are going to know a lot about it now.”

“If I’m not mistaken, Toronto has one of the largest populations of Italians outside Italy itself, so I think quite a few Canadians will be excited about today.”

As for his build-up to the Giro, Hesjedal said “really it consisted of keeping the brakes on in the early part of the year. Normally I come out in good shape to try and tackle races right from the beginning up to the Ardennes and then focus on the Tour.”

“In November last year, the team put me forward to ride the GC at the Giro and it took me a while to digest this new program. But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like the perfect opportunity... The team has been incredible this first week, and we’re living off that momentum.”

Getting the pink jersey, particularly after such a near-miss yesterday, was something Hesjedal described as “unreal,” before adding that he had no idea how long he would be able to defend it. But come what may, as Canada’s first ever Giro leader and three years after that Vuelta stage win, Hesjedal has already established another big new landmark in his country’s cycling history.

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Alasdair Fotheringham

Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 bar one, as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. As well as working for Cyclingnews, he has also written for The IndependentThe GuardianProCycling, The Express and Reuters.