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Rating the Tour de France favorites, from W(iggins) to Z

Ryder Hesjedal (CAN), Garmin-Barracuda ★★★

Canucks look good in pink and Ryder Hesjedal made Canada’s first grand tour win look natural in May. His victory at this year’s Giro d’Italia bumped Garmin’s laid back former mountain biker onto a list that he would not have made two months ago: the top favorites to win the 2012 Tour de France.

Granted, following a first grand tour victory with a second, in the same year, is asking a lot. To many it was a surprise that Garmin brass would name Hesjedal a team leader for the Tour, particularly considering the recent record of Giro winners in July. Marco Pantani was the last rider to pull off the Giro-Tour double, in 1998 — and he was the last Giro winner to even finish on the Tour podium in the same season.

“It was always in my plan from the beginning of the year (to race the Tour),” Hesjedal told VeloNews. “It was mission accomplished for the Giro, so why not try for the Tour? Not racing the Tour just doesn’t make sense.”

Garmin’s other top GC contenders, Christian Vande Velde and Tom Danielson, will ride alongside Hesjedal after playing a key role in the team’s Giro triumph and finishing inside the top 10 at the Tour de Suisse, respectively. Vande Velde, fourth overall in 2008, and Danielson could both step up to the plate on the TT-heavy course.

With Daniel Martin eyeing his first Tour start and workhorses like Dave Zabriskie and David Millar, Hesjedal and company have a deep stable of support riders. Sprinter Tyler Farrar has had a winless season thus far and Garmin’s Tour roster is clearly built around a run at the GC podium, with Robbie Hunter the only rider likely pledged to support the American.

Hesjedal’s talents are well suited to this Tour, and his Giro ride proved above all that he is able to stay calm and unshaken when the race erupts — a talent that is even more critical in the Tour. The factor that Vande Velde named as the most critical to Garmin’s Giro win was what he called “the calm.”

“We were just always able to stay ahead of the game,” said Vande Velde. “There was never any moment when we had to panic to take back time. That’s key to having a great race. And (Hesjedal) was able to make things happen when people were not expecting it. He was an opportunist and using his underdog role to the maximum.”

No one does calm like Hesjedal. And while he is no longer an underdog, he proved in 2010, when he finished sixth overall at the Tour, that his laid-back demeanor carries over to the sport’s biggest stage.

It could easily carry over to the stage sitting before the Arc de Triomphe in Paris on July 22.

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