Ryder Hesjedal delivered on his pre-Ardennes promise to be more aggressive with second place in a closely fought Amstel Gold Race on Sunday. The Canadian made it to the final climb of the day, the Cauberg, in a group containing all the pre-race favourites.
As Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) flew away for the win, Hesjedal and Enrico Gasparotto (Astana) were the only riders able to mount a serious counter attack. Hesjedal edged his Italian rival out at the line to claim his best result in a Classic.
"I couldn’t be more pleased. It’s insane," he told Cyclingnews as he drove to the post-race press conference with team manager Jonathan Vaughters.
"This means a lot. I started to see myself as a rider for these races a few years ago and I’ve got nothing but the utmost respect for them. This is my fifth Amstel and it was one of the first races in did in 2004. I remember coming off the back after 180 kilometres and I couldn’t fathom how you got to the finish - now I realise," he said.
Hesjedal came into the race as 150/1 long-shot for the win, but after winning a stage in last year’s Vuelta a España and a strong start to the season in the Tours of the Basque Country and Catalunya, he was confident.
Despite missing out on the first few decisive splits with the likes of Gilbert, the Schleck brothers (Saxo Bank), Serguei Ivanov and Alexandr Klobonev (both Katusha), Vaughters believes that this result bodes well for the remainder of the Ardennes, especially when the team bring in reinforcements to back-up Hesjedal.
"Ryder can win Flèche or Liège, but we’ve got to have the team to back him. We’ve got Cam Meyer and Dan Martin coming in so it will be more solid for those races than it was here. But we’ve got to get him in a position where it’s a bigger group. You could see that when it was three or four guys on the climb he’s not quite there, he’s not Andy Schleck on the hills, but if it’s a group of twenty in a sprint then he’s more than pretty good."
However, Hesjedal’s race didn’t just come down to his final effort on the Cauberg. Having missed several moves he was forced go on the offensive and linked up with some strong rivals, including Cadel Evans (BMC Racing Team), in the race to shut down the late-race escape groups.
"Some guys messed up and I had to get back on as the climbs were coming pretty rapid. Then we went over the Keutenberg and I was in the middle. Chris Horner and Cadel did a bit of a move, so I could go with them. I was confident it was going to come back. Once I knew we’d get to the Cauberg I just tried to save as much as possible."
Hesjedal was forced to drive 1,200 kilometres from Girona to Maastricht after Volcano Eyjafjallajökull forced the closure of most European airspace. However, despite the last-minute complication Hesjedal claimed his preparation for the Ardennes had been spot on.
"Honestly, I had a perfect programme and the team had confidence in me. I knew I was strong. I didn’t care that we had to drive 1,200 K - I knew my legs were good."
Before he walked onto the stage to join Gilbert and Gasparotto for the press conference, he added: "It’s the first time I’ve been in the final of Amstel on the Cauberg. The ball is rolling and confidence is high."