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Giro d’Italia: Ryder Hesjedal’s historical win

The first Canadian to win the Corsa Rosa

Ryder Hesjedal looked down the starting ramp, seconds before starting the final stage, the individual time trial, and he knew he had to ride the race of his life if he hoped to win the 95th Giro d’Italia.

The Victoria, B.C. native had already made history as the first Canadian to ever wear the maglia rosa, or pink jersey, not once, but for five days during the middle stages of the three-week grand tour. Waiting for officials to give the final signal on the ramp, he prepared to launch himself along the 28.2 km course, trailed by the race leader, Joaquim Rodriguez of Katusha. He was in second place in the general classification, and he had to close down a 31-second gap to the Spaniard.

Leaving Milan with the victory was the only thing on his mind.

Canadians have been in 17 consecutive editions of the Giro d’Italia

Hesjedal, riding his Cervelo P5 time trial bike, was the obvious favourite, of the team and the thousands of fans lining the route through the centre of Milan. Garmin-Barracuda’s management sat in the team car, driving closely behind him shouting instructions and words of encouragement through a bull horn along the course.

“The mind is a strong thing and I was completely committed to having a great time trial,” Hesjedal said. “It unfolded perfectly. It was only in the last five kilometres that I heard that I was the virtual leader on the road. I was not to take any risks in the last few corners and I would be home. No information could have made me change the way I rode. If I was ahead or down on Rodriguez at any point, I was riding to my maximum ability. The team was there and it was encouraging to hear the director motivating me at certain moments.”

He had the ride of his life. After 91 hours 39 minutes and 2 seconds in the saddle, racing on a course that 2011 world champion Mark Cavendish called “diabolical,” the 6’2″ Hesjedal had squeezed out a 16-second advantage to win the overall victory. It was one of the smallest margins in the Giro’s history. Not that the margin mattered. It could have been one second for all Hesjedal cared. He was the champion of the Giro d’Italia, and the most talked about pro in the cycling world.

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How he managed to sleep the night before the finale is a mystery. The television pundits and the cycling press said his time trial strength meant the Giro was his to lose. And, during the final week, media interest was gathering back home. Suddenly he was bearing the expectations of a nation. Pressure? It was enough to give anybody a sleepless night.

“I had a good sleep because the two days before we had spent thirteen and a half hours racing up those mountains,” he laughs. “Obviously I knew it was going to be a good day on Sunday, but I slept well because I was confident. I get better as races go on, and that was one of the reasons that the Giro was good for me this year. It was very demanding for the last eight days, even though every day was hard. But clearly when you stack up all the big mountains in the third week, that’s where the differences become a lot sharper. That’s where I’ve shown my ability to get better, as the third week of a grand tour progresses. That’s what it takes, and I think I showed that in the Giro.”

Once the post-event media and sponsor obligations were finished, Hesjedal and his teammates gathered for a victory celebration. The win was by far Garmin-Barracuda’s greatest achievement since Jonathan Vaughters had founded it on the principles of clean cycling. Some of Hesjedal’s friends and family had travelled to Milan to watch him race. Even Vaughters turned up at the end. The CEO of Slipstream Sports was in the U.S. for the Tour of California and didn’t want to jinx Hesjedal’s good fortunes.

Canadian cycling legend Steve Bauer urged Vaughters to leave the American race and fly to Italy, “You’d better get over there fast. He’s going to win it.”

Sharing Garmin’s first grand tour victory with his friends and colleagues was something he will remember for a lifetime. “We had a great dinner with the team and the staff that night in Milan at a little mom and pop-style family restaurant,” he said. “We ate and drank, everyone enjoyed the moment knowing we didn’t have to clip back in the pedals the next morning. It was a nice moment to be in.”

The following day, after a team breakfast, Hesjedal returned to his home in Girona, Spain, hoping to unwind and rest. Instead, he faced another round of media interviews. It took a few days to fully grasp what he had accomplished, and he hadn’t gotten a chance to share the experience with his wife, Ashley, because the media frenzy continued.

Congratulations poured in. He didn’t ride for days. Then it hit him.

“I won the Giro d’Italia,” he said. “It’s the Giro d’Italia, the 95th edition, and if you look at the names of the previous winners it’s one of the marquee events of cycling – period. I’m definitely realising the magnitude, and it’s amazing. It’s what you work for. I’m very content right now. I’ll see how we move forward to the next events.”

Hesjedal acknowledged the support he got from the team at a training camp last November when Vaughters proposed he ride the Giro as the team leader. Normally, Hesjedal rode the Spring Classics, then the Tour of California, all in preparation for the Tour de France in July, but he accepted the new opportunity, the new challenge.

“They put that in my lap, me being the GC leader for the Giro,” Hesjedal said. “I could focus on that race 100 per cent and have the support of Christian [Vande Velde] and Peter [Stetina] on the mountains as well as the other guys during the team time trial. The other parts of the race would also be taken care of. We have a very capable team and it was a huge honour to get the nod to be the leader and see how far I could take it. I think it worked out well.”

Two years ago, Christian Vande Velde abandoned the Tour de France after a crash and Hesjedal became the team leader. He finished 6th overall – the highest place by a Canadian since Bauer’s 4th place finish at the 1988 Tour. The American played a major role in Hesjedal’s Giro victory, working for him through the mountain stages. He recognizes the importance of teamwork.

“That’s what it’s all about. Even in 2008, in our first Tour de France, Christian had an amazing ride and I was there to help him,” Hesjedal said. “I’m not sure which stage it was in the Alps. I was in the break and Christian had a little bit of a bad day and fell out of the yellow jersey group on that climb. I waited for him and helped him keep within distance of the jersey, helped him keep his position in the overall race. That’s what it’s all about, those moments where you help one another.”

“He was there for me in this race. That’s what it takes to achieve a great result, the support of your teammates,” he adds. “He was definitely a big part of this ride and has been since being on the team. We have been together the whole time since this team started. We’ve gone through a lot together. He was very excited for this race and we pulled off some amazing things. So definitely a big thanks to him. I hope to repay him any way I can.”

Following Hesjedal’s victory, Bauer was called upon for interviews with the Canadian press, to speak about the magnitude of his achievement. As co-owner and director of SpiderTech powered by C10, he continues to follow the sport closely. He expressed his admiration for Hesjedal.

“Ryder’s performance is a monumental, by a Canadian in international cycling,” he said. “It’s a testament to his dedication and progression as an athlete. I mean, he showed superior focus, put the Giro on the top of his priority list, as the captain, basically since December.

“They [Garmin-Barracuda] targeted the Giro. Ryder wasn’t showing [results] early in the season. You didn’t see him rocking on all cylinders at the Classics,” the former pro added. “He focussed on one goal and he pulled it all together. He used his consistency over many years on the road.”

Hesjedal’s picture was in the newspapers and on television screens across Canada. He knows that cycling fans appreciate his victory. He hopes that it will help develop the sport in Canada.

“I think winning the Giro will create cycling awareness in Canada,” he added. “First of all people will know there’s more than one race out there besides the Tour de France. In cycling, there are so may levels you can take, it’s a positive avenue for the mind, body and environment. It has given me so much. I’ve dedicated my life to cycling and I’ve been able to do some pretty incredible things. This is just the culmination of all those years.”

The week after the race ended, people were talking about “that Canadian guy who won the bike race in Italy.” But to many, the Tour still generates the most appeal. He explains the difference between the two grand tours. “In a lot of ways the Giro is harder than the Tour,” he says. “There’s a quote from Cavendish, who said it’s the hardest race he has ever done. The mountains are brutal, it’s earlier in the year, it’s in May. The weather can be more challenging. In a lot of ways, it’s harder, even though the Tour is more popular. In Italy the Giro is the most popular race, and that’s a country where everyone respects the sport of cycling. For me, it was definitely one of the harder races I can remember — certainly, the way I had to race it. To date, it’s been the hardest grand tour I’ve had to do.”

Racing for three weeks as a team leader and winning his first grand tour has clearly been a taxing experience, and it’s time to take a break with Ashley, to relish in his accomplishment.

The rest of his schedule this season is undecided, though he openly invited the Canadian Cycling Association to give him that single spot available for the men’s Olympic road events. For now, it’s time to rest. He sure earned it.