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A look back at Ryder Hesjedal

Read Dan Dakin's 2010 interview with the Grand Tour winner

Ryder Hesjedal

Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Barracuda) made history on Sunday as the first Canadian to win the Giro d’Italia, or any grand tour. The Victoria native won the three-week race on the final day, a 28 km time trial in Milan.

We looked back in our history books and found this feature about Hesjedal written by Dan Dakin two years ago.

Hesjedal is not an emotional fellow. It’s just not how he rolls. Those fist pumps and the ear to ear smile on his face when he stood atop the podium that day in September, as the winner of stage 12 at the 2009 Vuelta a España, are about as excited as you’ll see the Victoria, B.C. native.

Unusually relaxed and even-keeled, Hesjedal coasts through the emotional ups and downs of professional bike racing without letting much affect him. There was the time in 2003 when he seemingly had the World Cross Country mountain bike championship race locked up, only to have a suspiciously-fast Belgian rider, Filip Meirhaeghe, come from 55 seconds behind him to take the win.

Hesjedal had led nearly the entire race and was passed on the final lap.

The following year Meirhaeghe was busted for doping at a World Cup race and was suspended, casting doubt over his remarkable performance at the world championships, but Hesjedal took it in stride. He was in Victoria that summer preparing for the 2004 Summer Olympics when he heard the news. “My first reaction was ‘that’s one less guy I have to worry about in Athens’,” he said. “It’s not worth dwelling on the past.”

Hesjedal is quite used to the roller coaster of pro cycling. Though he’s known more as a road racer these days, Hesjedal got his start in mountain biking and first raced at the top levels of the sport in North America for the Subaru-Gary Fisher team. He won a UCI World Cup race in Les Gets, France in 2002 and won the overall under-23 title that year. In addition to taking the silver behind Meirhaeghe at the world championships in 2003, he won the National Off-Road Bicycle Association (NORBA) XC championship that year and was the first-ever professional rider to race a 29″-wheeled mountain bike in a NORBA championship event.

But in 2004, he left mountain biking behind and turned his attention solely to the road. A stint with Lance Armstrong’s Discovery Channel team made him realize just what a career as a road rider could mean. For a guy who once wanted to play professional baseball, this was like playing for the New York Yankees.

“To be around Lance and that organization, it was just a big year. But it felt like that’s where I needed to be, and should be,” said Hesjedal. He made the switch to Phonak in 2006 riding for Floyd Landis on the Swiss-based team and had a good year results-wise, but it all hit the pavement in August when Tour de France winner Landis was fired after being caught for doping. The team quickly folded and Hesjedal was out of a job. “All I wanted to do was get home and be with my friends and family,” he said. “That was a hard part of the sport, which is very real.”

In 2007, he decided to step away from Europe and joined the American Health Net-Maxxis squad. “I wanted to be in control and I knew with a team like that I could be one of the top riders and pick my schedule and get back on my feet,” Hesjedal said. “But as soon as I signed the contract, all I could think about was getting back to Europe. And I just went to work.”

Watching from the outside was Jonathan Vaughters, the directeur sportif of Team Slipstream, who signed Hesjedal the following year. His impact on the team was immediate. Hesjedal raced the Giro D’Italia and his first Tour de France that season – helping teammate Christian Vande Velde finish fifth.
“To be able to ride through the Tour and finish on the Champs-Élysées,” Hesjedal said, “those are things that have changed my career. It’s just where I envisioned myself being.” Making a 2008 season even better, Hesjedal represented Canada at the Summer Olympics in Beijing.

“He was underutilized and was always a rider that had enormous talent,” Vaughters said. “But he had never been in a good team environment for him. Ryder has a pretty unique personality for a bike rider. He’s pretty laid back and he likes white Gucci shoes.”

Hesjedal admits he’s a fashion guru who’s willing to spend $400 on a pair of shoes or $250 on a pair of Hugo Boss jeans. Hesjedal’s family and friends kept him grounded when he was young, but he was always willing to pay for the stuff he wanted. “I liked to express myself with my vehicles,” he said. At 20, Hesjedal ordered up a brand new and fully loaded 2001 Lexus IS 300 sports car in canary yellow. “To be able to roll a brand new Lexus out of the showroom was pretty cool. But it was the bad-ass mountain bike attitude. Sometimes I think I was an idiot.”

Today he still likes the fine things, but tries to make better choices. He drives a Chrysler 300c with 22-inch wheels (“It’s the working-man’s Bentley,” he said), and an Izuzu Trooper SUV.  Hesjedal admits he would rather splurge on good food or Hawaiian plants for his garden than on the things he used to buy. Hesjedal owns a home in Maui, where he trains during the off-season, and another house in Victoria, which he still considers home. During the season, he rents a place in Girona, the home base for the Garmin-Transitions team.

He likely would have owned three or four more houses and a Lamborghini or two had he followed through with his first dream of becoming a pro baseball player, but pretty early on, Hesjedal came to the realization he was more into individual sports than those with a team.
As a child, Hesjedal excelled at just about any sport he tried. “I was super active and athletic and I just took to any kind of sport. Baseball, basketball, soccer, football, I played everything as a youth,” he said.

Being a professional athlete was always Hesjedal’s long-term goal. He idolized those well-paid pros he saw on television and as a daydreaming eight-year-old, it was more a matter of picking a sport to turn pro in than picking a career.

It’s not that bikes weren’t around. Growing up in Highlands, a small community of a few thousand just north of Victoria, Hesjedal’s sports mostly took place in Langford, about seven kilometres away from his home. Getting to and from practices or friends’ houses typically meant hopping on his bike and pedalling the mostly downhill route there – and uphill route home.

“That was a huge part of where I group up,” Hesjedal said. “It was a pretty far ride when I look back. I’m sure I would get 10 or 15 km a day biking as a kid.”
The older he got, the more cycling got into his blood. But it wasn’t about competition until his final year of elementary school, when family friend Jeff Green put on a mountain bike race in the area. Hesjedal decided to take part, but was in a basketball tournament the same weekend.

“There was this big battle. I didn’t really want to be at the basketball tournament and I remember sitting there thinking ‘I hope we don’t advance’ so I could get the hell out of there and get to the race.”

Just like that, a competitive mountain biker was born.

“There were world class trails half a kilometre from my house and after school I would do two- to three-hour rides on singletrack. Now that I look back,” he said, “what I did from 13 to 16 or 17 gave me the foundation and allowed me to get to that level.”

In Grade 8, Hesjedal’s first year of junior high, he started racing in a school mountain bike series and realized this was the sport for him. “I don’t know how or why, but pretty early on I knew cycling could be good. I got my head around that and stopped all the other sports.”

That dream of being a professional baseball player transitioned into wanting to be a professional rider like the guys he saw on the posters at his local bike shop.  Hesjedal started working with coach Juerg Feldmann, who put the wheels in motion for his career. As a teenager, Hesjedal was riding on a Feldmann-coached junior development team alongside Geoff Kabush, where the focus was well into the future.

“He always had a lot of confidence and high aspirations,” said Kabush, who is now Canada’s top male mountain biker. “There was never a doubt in his mind that he was going to accomplish his goals.”

By the winter of 1995, at the age of 14, Hesjedal’s future was set. “I knew I had to commit to it 100 per cent or it wasn’t going to work. I remember thinking, yeah I really want to ride the rest of my life,” he said. “I can remember my dad, when I said I didn’t want to do these other sports not being very happy.”

Understandable, considering the average salary of a pro cyclist is comical when compared to that of most other pro athletes. “But it worked out in the end,” Hesjedal said. “My parents were always supporting me. I would never be where I am without them. They’ve given me the means to do what I needed to do.”

Hesjedal’s parents Paige and Leonard are longtime employees of the regional government in B.C. They simply wanted to give their son the freedom to choose what he wanted to compete in as a kid. And no, calling their son Ryder wasn’t an effort to determine his future.

“I can’t make any great claims of being psychic or anything,” Paige Hesjedal said when asked about her son’s remarkably appropriate name. “I try to cash in on it, but it’s not working.”

One would think that for parents to call their first-born child Ryder they would have been competitive cyclists themselves, looking to predict a future career path for their son. But they just wanted to call him something different. “Honestly we just picked the name because it sounded cool at the time,” Paige Hesjedal said. “Be careful what you name your kids.”

She remembers being told Ryder wanted to be a pro cyclist. “I guess I didn’t even realize there was a career in bike riding at that point. He just started getting into competitions and then he realized there was a future in it,” she said. “My biggest shock was the cost of bikes. He always needed a better bike and a better bike. But he obviously had that potential.” Now, Hesjedal’s parents are his biggest fans.

While Leonard Hesjedal was at work on the day of the 12th stage of the Vuelta last September, Paige was at home, glued to the computer monitor as she watched the race unfold online. “I had it streaming live on the computer, just watching it and screaming at the screen all by myself,” Paige Hesjedal recalled. “As he was getting closer to the finish I grabbed the landline to start calling people because I was freaking out.”

It was a mountainous stage with a summit finish atop Alto de Velefique, located 179 km from the day’s start in Almeria, Spain. Hesjedal had made it into a long breakaway – just like he had two stages earlier when he finished second to Aussie Simon Gerrans. This time, Hesjedal had to do most of the work as his breakaway companion, Garcia, of Spain, had a high-ranking teammate in the chase group and no motivation to keep the break away.

Hesjedal kept the pace high and easily out-duelled Garcia to become the first Canadian to win a stage of the Vuelta and the first to win a Grand Tour stage since Steve Bauer at the 1988 Tour de France.

Paige and Leonard Hesjedal were ecstatic. “It was thrilling. After being over there, you realize how big it is and what an accomplishment it is,” said Paige, who followed Ryder through much of the 2009 Tour de France with her husband. “It was long overdue. It was a lot of years he fought back on the road to get to that point.”
Indeed. Hesjedal had come a long way from his first bike race as a 10-year-old.

* * *

Standing on the podium after winning Stage 12, Hesjedal took a moment to think about what had just transpired. He had just beaten the biggest names in the sport on one of the toughest days of the Vuelta.

“You have to visualize you can do it and when it actually unfolds, that’s the magic of the sport,” Hesjedal said. “It was just an unbelievable feeling.”
Vaughters, for one, knew it was coming. “I think it was a natural progression for him as a rider,” he said. “Was it a surprise to me that he was capable of winning a mountain stage in a Grand Tour? Not at all.”

At 29, Hesjedal is content with where he is in his professional career. He recently signed a two-year contract with the renamed Garmin-Transitions team through 2011 and knows the best is yet to come.

“I’m very happy I was able to do this whole career as a mountain biker at the age I did it and then transition over,” he said. “When I envision myself in another five years I get really excited because I know I can still be performing consistently.”

Hesjedal knows the bar has been raised, but it’s a challenge he’s looking forward to. “I think they’ll be expecting that from me, but it’s good pressure. I want to better my results at every race.”

That’s good news for the future of cycling in Canada.