Giro d'Italia
Ryder Hesjedal insists defending his Giro d'Italia...

Hesjedal: Giro defense is top priority in Giro-Tour double

Garmin-Sharp rider became the first Canadian grand tour champion when he won the 2012 Giro d'Italia

LEON, Spain (VN) — The results sheet is sometimes an inaccurate reflection of form. That’s certainly the case with Ryder Hesjedal’s 66th-place finish at the Volta a Catalunya that concluded Sunday, with Garmin-Sharp teammate Daniel Martin standing in the top spot.

Hesjedal proved the dealmaker in his season debut, providing an essential motor in the stage 4 breakaway that set up Martin for the stage victory and the overall.

“This victory is thanks to Ryder and the work he did on Port Ainé,” Martin said. “Ryder is stronger than me. Having him ride for me all day in the break was decisive.”

For Hesjedal, the Volta was a first step toward his major goals of the 2013 season. The first is defending his pink jersey at the Giro d’Italia, with a serious run at the Tour de France right behind that.

While Bradley Wiggins (Sky) and his talk of a Giro-Tour double seems to be gaining most of the attention, it’s Hesjedal who could well be the surprise of the season.

“I want to take a crack at both,” Hesjedal told VeloNews in a phone interview. “We’re just trying to replicate last year. I hope to get back to the same place.”

That “same place” was his history-making victory at last year’s Giro — he was the first Canadian to win a grand tour. Rather than hit the party circuit, Hesjedal recovered and then quietly came into the Tour with excellent form.

Hesjedal was sent home packing with a disastrous crash in the first week, but insiders at Garmin know it was an opportunity lost.

“Ryder did some tests last year before the Tour and he was stronger in the Tour than the Giro last year,” Garmin-Sharp sport director Bingen Fernández told VeloNews. “He had the bad luck of that crash and had to abandon the Tour, so we’ll never know. So the plan is more or less the same: make a good Giro, then the Tour to see what happens.”

Handling the demands of two grand tours is a balancing act at best. It’s a question of trying to hit peak form in time to be among the best for the decisive final week of the Giro in late May and then recover to do it all again in the middle of July.

There is some speculation that Hesjedal is actually thinking more about the Tour. This year’s mountainous parcours is ideal for the Canadian and some are wondering if Hesjedal will be riding the Giro with one eye on the Tour.

Fernández insists that’s not the case and says Hesjedal is going back to the Giro to win.

“The first idea is to do a good Giro. Just like last year, we want him to hit a good peak of form and dispute the Giro, and then see what happens for the Tour. That’s the plan on paper right now,” Fernández said. “To defend the pink jersey is the most important goal. Looking at how things were last year, he can go to the Tour in good form.”

Garmin teammate Peter Stetina, who’s raced the past two Giros and provided key support to Hesjedal in the final week, said the team is not thinking too much beyond the Giro.

“I have only heard him talk about the Giro on the bus,” Stetina said of Hesjedal. “You have a month to chill out before the Tour. If you can recover from the Giro, you can go to the Tour with awesome form. You don’t have to worry about proving yourself in the Dauphine or Swiss.”

Hesjedal, too, said the first business at hand is the Giro defense.

“I am not thinking too far ahead right now,” Hesjedal said. “I want to do my best with the No. 1 bib at the Giro and go from there. Just based on my experience, I always come out of the Giro in a good way.”

If he can avoid the pratfalls of injuries, crashes, and illness, Hesjedal said the rigors of the three-week Giro provide ideal preparation for the Tour.

“I always get better as I go along. Three week tours are perfect for me right now,” he continued. “I’d be more than happy if I can get back to the same level as last year. We’re doing everything right. I want to stay focused and go from there.”

Hesjedal is not taking his Giro defense for granted. With the likes of Wiggins and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) lining up for the win, Garmin knows it will be a hard challenge to reach the podium, let alone win again.

“I am confident. I have that [Giro win] under my belt. On the other hand, I do feel that pressure. Just going back as defending champion, that’s enough right there to get the motivation up,” Hesjedal said. “It’s exciting. I am really proud of what I was able to do last year, day-in and day-out. I am confident and relaxed.”

For now, at least.