MILAN (VN) – After three rock-solid weeks of battling for the pink jersey, Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Barracuda) finally cracked when “O Canada” played on the loudspeakers to celebrate the victor of the 2012 Giro d’Italia.
Tears welled in Hesjedal’s eyes as his national anthem blasted over Milan’s central Duomo. For the first time in cycling history, a Canadian stood atop the winner’s podium of a grand tour and the ever-cool Hesjedal couldn’t hold back his emotions.
“With about 5km to go, I started to believe in it,” Hesjedal said. “It’s hard to describe. It’s a dream come true. It’s unbelievable. Since the first day I pulled on the pink jersey, I believed I had a chance for this race. I just kept focusing. I want to thank the team for believing me. This is the highlight of my career so far.”
Hesjedal erased a 31-second deficit to Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) 15km into Sunday’s 28.2km final time trial to take the virtual overall lead. He didn’t take any unnecessary risks from there and when Rodríguez crossed the line almost two minutes after the Canadian, Hesjedal officialy won the Giro by just 16 seconds, the fourth-smallest winning margin in Giro history.
The victory is historic on several levels. It’s the first grand tour victory for Canada (Steve Bauer’s fourth in the 1988 Tour de France was the best result until now) and it’s the first grand tour victory for the Slipstream franchise since it entered the elite peloton in 2008.
For Hesjedal, the win marks a long journey that began on the gravel roads of Vancouver Island in Canada’s British Columbia. After riding in the 2004 Olympic Games on fat tires, Hesjedal dedicated himself exclusively to the road in the second half of the season.
“When I stopped racing mountain bikes, I was just going into races where I could fit it. It wasn’t the easiest way to start, but I got a lot of good experience,” he said. “I did that first Giro (in 2005). That was my first grand tour. I took a lot out of that experience.”
After knocking around the peloton for a few years to gain experience, Hesjedal began to hit his stride after joining Garmin in 2008. His first grand tour stage win came the next year, during the 2009 Vuelta a España. Hesjedal followed that up with second at Amstel Gold Race and sixth overall at the Tour de France in 2010.
Last year, he was consistent over the entire season in a year without major highlights, but one that helped pave the way for his Giro win. When Garmin staff sat down with Hesjedal last fall to map out the 2012 season, they suggested that the Giro could be his chance to ride for GC.
With the support of the Garmin squad, Hesjedal rode confidently through the Giro, catching the Italians by surprise and then having the legs to pull on the pink jersey on Sunday, on the only day that counted.
“I knew I came to this Giro with good legs, but I never thought I was going to win,” Hesjedal said. “It just came together, and I couldn’t be more happy.”
The story of the 2012 Giro
Hesjedal’s Giro started off with a strong ride on a technical, 8.8km individual time trial to open the 95th edition in Denmark. The Canadian was better than each the Giro “big,” but no one was paying attention to him yet.
Garmin’s team time trial victory in stage 4 further bolstered Hesjedal’s GC position and he pulled on the pink jersey in stage 7, a day after Garmin botched the chase and left him 17 seconds short of the lead.
Hesjedal defended for two stages before he and Rodríguez began a bitter tug-of-war for the maglia rosa when the Spaniard sprinted to victory at the hilltop town of Assisi to win the stage and take a decisive 20-second time bonus that put him into pink by just seconds.
Time bonuses would play a key role throughout the race. Rodríguez took 28 seconds to Hesjedal on bonuses in the first half of the Giro, but officials removed them from the formula in the five decisive mountain stages.
Hesjedal took back the pink jersey at Cervinia with a thrilling, 3km attack, only to lose it the following day at Piani Resinelli above Lecco in a cold rain. He described that ride, a week ago Sunday, as his “bad day.”
“We started to believe that Ryder could win on that stage to Cervinia, not only for the way Ryder rode, but also how the other rivals were reacting,” said Garmin sport director Bingen Fernández. “We could see that Ryder was maintaining his gap to the others and even taking time. That changed everything.”
Rodríguez would carry pink all the way to Milan, but Hesjedal and Garmin rode superbly through the final decisive climbing stages in the Alps to put the world on notice that the winner of this Giro would not be an Italian.
Hesjedal attacked up Alpe di Pampeago on Friday on a day when many predicted he would be vulnerable. Some 24 hours later, Rodríguez attacked Hesjedal after sucking his wheel all the way up the Passo dello Stelvio. The difference into Milan was just 31 seconds and Hesjedal had just enough in the tank to take back the pink jersey on the only day that mattered.
Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM) was a wildcard that no one saw coming. The Belgian attacked over the Mortirolo and eventually pulled within two minutes of Hesjedal after winning Saturday’s stage up the Stelvio.
“You do not know what I was thinking about him yesterday,” Hesjedal joked about De Gendt. “It was very complicated yesterday because all the others put the weight of the race on me. It was my race to lose. I had to do the work and bring back that time. That makes my victory even sweeter. I knew he was a good climber, but also a good time trialist. I was nervous about him today.”
The Giro big
Hesjedal’s rivals were magnanimous in defeat. Ivan Basso, whose Liquigas-Cannondale team ground down the peloton but couldn’t shake Hesjedal, tipped his hat to the Canadian.
“Ryder and ‘Purito’ were the bravest two riders during this Giro. It is a well deserved podium,” Basso said. “I do not believe this will be my last Giro as a protagonist. Like I said yesterday, this Giro just didn’t go the way that I had hoped.”
The defeat was tough on Rodríguez, who bashed into a metal barrier on Sunday morning during his recon of the TT course, leaving him with a gash on his left shoulder.
Rodríguez took consolation by winning the red points jersey, just one point ahead of Mark Cavendish (Sky). The Spaniard tried to be philosophical in defeat in what was his first grand tour podium after five grand tour top-10 finishes over the past four years.
“We gave everything we could to win this Giro. The team worked great for me. I risked a lot in the time trial and I thought I did a pretty good time trial, but in the end, Ryder was simply a little stronger than me. I don’t think I made any particular error that cost me the Giro,” Rodríguez said. “I can only congratulate him. It was important to arrive to Milan in the pink jersey, but of course, it’s too bad to lose it by such a small margin.”
Garmin rode well throughout the Giro, winning the team time trial and putting Ramunas Navardauskas into pink for one day. Sprinter Tyler Farrar crashed out in the first week, but the team rallied around its Canadian leader.
When the race hit the decisive climbing stages in the second half of the Giro, Peter Stetina and Christian Vande Velde buried themselves to protect Hesjedal’s flanks in the most important moments. Both were essential to his victory and Hesjedal was quick to thank them.
“The team believed in me 100 percent and that gave me the confidence I needed,” Hesjedal said. “The guys, they were even more believing in me than myself at some points. They just gave everything. I know they’re extremely proud of me and I am of them. It’s going to be a good night tonight.”
Celebrating a first
Hesjedal is now the toast of Italy and the Giro saw its first non-Italian podium sweep since 1995.
Hesjedal’s father came to Italy in time to see his son ride up the Stelvio. His wife, Ashley, was the first to receive a kiss after Hesjedal secured overall victory.
Tonight the team will celebrate its first grand tour victory, with team manager Jonathan Vaughters flying into Italy, but keeping a low profile to not disrupt the team’s concentration in the final decisive moments.
Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper applauded Hesjedal after the finish.
“On behalf of all Canadians, I would like to congratulate Ryder Hesjedal for his amazing victory in the Giro d’Italia,” said Harper. “We thank Mr. Hesjedal for his defining moment in Canadian sport and wish him well in his upcoming races, including this year’s Tour de France.”
Hesjedal doesn’t want to think about the Tour de France, though he will be racing for Garmin with the weighted expectations of trying to become the first rider since Marco Pantani in 1998 to win the Giro and Tour in the same year.
That’s how fast things can change. Three weeks ago, few counted Hesjedal among the Giro favorites. Now people are asking him if he can win the Tour.
For the immediate future, Hesjedal is going to celebrate his historic victory with those who’ve been there for him since he began racing as a kid growing up in British Columbia.
“Maybe I will go shopping tomorrow and pick up some nice things,” Hesjedal joked.