Ryder Hesjedal is making the most of his new opportunity to race against the best in Europe. Following the collapse of the Phonak team in 2006, Hesjedal raced on the North American circuit last season before signing with Slipstream-Chipotle to return to Europe this year.
The Canadian ex-mountain biker has quietly been posting some of Slipstream-Chipotle’s best results this spring, capped by a top-10 at Tirreno-Adriatico.
Hesjedal is ready for a run at the Giro d’Italia as a key member of the team’s first three-week grand tour. VeloNews caught up with Hesjedal during last week’s Ardennes classics. Here are excerpts from the interview:
VeloNews: Looking ahead to the Giro d’Italia, how many Giros have you ridden?
Ryder Hesjedal: Just one. I rode the Giro in 2005 with Discovery and I crashed hard in the sixth stage. It was on Friday the 13th. That’s considered lucky in Italy, but I crashed my brains out. It was a pretty hard first experience and I am looking bigger and better things this time around.
VN: You had better luck in the 2006 Vuelta with Phonak, but you decided to abandon when you were in the top 20 with a week to go, why?
RH: Yes, that was in 2006 and that definitely went better. I had been fighting for two weeks and the highest I got in GC was 12th in that hard day into Cuenca. I wasn’t great in the time trial, but I was still hovering in the top 20. A couple of more days and I just hit the limit. It was just too much to try to make it to Madrid and then hope to line up in Salzburg for the worlds. I was the only guy starting for Canada and the writing was on the wall. The team wasn’t continuing and I just decided to stop (the Vuelta) and was happy how it had gone to that point. I wanted to finish the year off strong at the worlds, but I was happy to get that opportunity and to be able to learn from that and see where my limits were.
VN: The Giro will be the team’s first grand tour, what role will you be playing?
RH: The opening stage (team time trial) is a real goal for us. We have a great chance to win. From there, we’ll be trying to win some stages. For a lot of guys, they will be using it as a springboard for the Tour. I think stage-hunting is the best way to approach the Giro. We don’t have a huge rider who’s committed to the GC. I just want to have a productive Giro and be in position to be an option for the Tour. I hope I am coming out of the Giro better and have an option for July.
VN: So you’re hopeful about getting a nod for the Tour?
RH: It’s definitely a possibility. Based on the season so far, plus with my experience in some of the grand tours, I think so. It’s definitely getting to the point to where it’s got to start for me. I’m just looking at getting through the Giro in good shape and looking ahead to the Tour.
VN: It’s been awhile since the last Canadian raced in the Tour?
RH: It’s been more than 10 years. I think Gordon Fraser was the last one to do it. I was still in the forest then, just mountain biking in the woods.
VN: You’ve been able to successfully crossover from mountain biking to the road, was it hard to make the switch to the road scene?
RH: I’m fully assimilated into the road scene now. They’re from different cultures and different approaches and I needed to put some time in. I wasn’t into the road culture yet at all in those days. Then I slowly got into it from mountain biking. I was on the U23 national team and we raced quite a bit on the road, then I was a stagiare at the end of 2002 with Rabobank. I won the U23 Tour of Catalunya and that was pretty much it. Rabobank said, we’re having a training camp in Croatia in January, so be there. I saw it as a perfect complement to mountain bike racing. I passed through the neo-pro and the early years, now it’s time to see what’s possible and finding the best way. Right now, it’s going a lot better with Slipstream than any team I’ve been on.
VN: How difficult was it for you when Phonak collapsed after the 2006 season?
RH: When you go from one of the best teams and the best situations in the peloton and then the team just stops, it doesn’t get any lamer than that. I had some of the best results so far my in career and I wanted to keep that momentum going, but the opportunity was just taken away. There were just too many things. My whole life was in Canada and I just didn’t want to have to dig even more into a foreign team just to stay in Europe. I wasn’t desperate enough to have to do that.
VN: How close were you to signing with a European team at the end of 2006?
RH: Never really that close. I was just over it at that point and wasn’t worried about it at all. I wanted to find a place on a domestic team and race well at California, Georgia and Philly week, and stay there to use that time for myself. At the end of the day, it really worked out well. I made a good choice because if I had gone with a different program just to stay over in Europe, then maybe I wouldn’t be here right now. I couldn’t see a better situation than I am in right now.
VN: After 2006, you returned to North America to race, how did you hook up with Slipstream?
RH: When I stepped away from Europe and went with the Health Net program, I wanted to use that to be a in a productive situation for racing for the future. Once I caught wind of where Slipstream was headed, it was a pretty clear match. From around the (Tour de) Georgia, we made contact, and we were on similar ideas to join forces and thankfully I found a spot on the team. It’s great that it came together. I have a two-year deal and that’s a commitment from them and a compliment from Slipstream. I was the only guy to come in new from a domestic team. All the new acquisitions were from Europe, so that says something. I was more than happy to come onto the team.
VN: How is it going for you on the team so far?
RH: The dynamic is great on the team. It’s an exciting team, a new team, something that I was looking to be a part of. It’s already been a super year and it’s just looking to get better. I don’t know if I’ve stepped up, but I’ve confirmed my ability at this point. That was one of my main goals, to get that opportunity back in Europe and make good on it. It’s been very satisfying for me personally and it’s been great to be able to help this team.
VN: The team’s strong anti-doping policy sends a great message, so it must be nice to race in that environment?
RH: That’s one of the reasons why I definitely wanted to be here. It’s easier to have that taken out of the equation. You give blood almost four times a week, between the UCI controls and the internal testing. I don’t know of many sports that you’re tested four times a week. You just do it and focus on what you have to do. It’s clear as day and it’s perfect for me to be here. I want that validation when I am out there working so hard. I don’t want to be on some team where a guy might be on blah-blah-blah. It’s an honor to be part of this team. Only so many guys get represent the way that we do it on Slipstream. There is an honor to be part of that group.
VN: You had a great start to the season with GP Marsellaise, you almost won there?
RH: It was a nice way to start. There were three of us in the final and we were cat-and-mousing around. A big bunch was coming in and I didn’t want to lose the podium when it was there to maybe try for the win. I just went early to make sure I’d end up being at least third and maybe win. I was already in position for the win, so I wasn’t expecting that so early, so let’s just roll with it.
VN: You’ve had a solid spring, what were the other highlights?
RH: I was OK at the Tour Mediterranean. Up Mont Faron, I wasn’t super great, but I still got up in the top 20, it was more just getting in a good stage race. I came out of there feeling pretty good. I made it into the decisive break at Haut Var with about 25 guys, so it was a good week of racing. Then I went straight to the Tour of Valencia and I was running eighth on GC after the queen stage, but in the second-to-last stage that finished up a 300-meter wall, I had a mechanical and I had to run up the last 100 meters and I lost 26 seconds that I wouldn’t have lost. In what would have been eighth, instead I fell out of the top 20, but that was some good quality racing and that was even more confirmation.
VN: You were also good in Italy at the Monte Paschi Eroica and Tirreno?
RH: I had a good poke at the victory there. I was in the break all day, but Spartacus and Ballan were chasing it down. I was 20km solo out of the breakaway, but Fabian and Ballan came up to me out of the peloton and rode straight through the breakaway. I couldn’t stay with those two, so I just rolled into the finish with the front group. Martin had a better kick than me, but I was still 10th. Then at Tirreno-Adriatico, I just kept it going and ground it out. I moved into eighth in GC, so I’ve had a pretty good spring.
VN: Talk about Flèche Wallonne, you had some bad luck right at the base of the Mur de Huy?
RH: It was just unfortunate. I had a good ride. Dave and I were arriving to the final, he was riding for me and put me in perfect position and he was doing that to a T. I was ready to have a good poke and I was right at the foot of the Mur, right on Cadel’s wheel and the tire went straight to the rim. Oh, that’s great! Dave had already peeled off. He came by and said, here, take my wheel and you can ride to the top. It was frustrating, because when it goes like that, with the weather and guys crashing everywhere and to make it through in good position through the leg-breaker part of the race, that’s the main crucial point of that race, that’s just too bad. I was like, are you kidding? It’s not like I railed through a pothole. I don’t know where I picked up the flat, it just decided to go straight to the rim.
VN: How often do you flat these days anyway?
RH: It ranks right up there with untimely flats. I’d compare that to my flat in the Athens Olympics. I punctured about 15 minutes into the race. That was it. No Athens, no Olympic medal.
VN: Do you ever consider going back to off-road racing?
RH: When you’re a medal contender, it stings, but I have so much on the plate now with this team, I don’t think about that. My role here is very involved and that was what I looking for. I just want to focus on that and it’s not realistic to try to squeeze other things in right now. You always think about what would have happened. Mountain biking was a very big past of mine. You see the guys who are still racing and how the sport’s developed in four years. I do ride on the mountain bike still and it’s pretty ingrained as a part of me. I did that for a better part of 10 years of my life. But finding the time and doing it properly just isn’t realistic now.
VN: There are quite a few ex-mountain bikers knocking around the peloton, how well do you know Cadel Evans?
RH: Cadel was one of my most fierce competitors at that time. When you’re running at the front like that, you’re more competitors than friends. With that, you develop respect for your peers. At NORBA nationals in 2001, I beat Evans straight up and that was a great victory for me. There were a number of races when we were in the front together. Now we always say hello to each other. I know (Dario) Cioni much better. He used to come over and train with us when he was on the Mapei-Kona team. I was just 17 and I thought these Euro-guys were just crazy. I looked up to those guys and tried to emulate them.
VN: So with your success in mountain biking and road racing, do you receive much attention from your hometown newspapers?
RH: I haven’t heard that much. Victoria is a tough town to crack. It’s a big sports town but cycling is not part of the culture there. When the Tour fires up, everyone is aware that it’s a big event. When you have Steve Nash and Nelly Furtado in the papers, it’s hard to get in there. Plus there’s always hockey, which is huge.
VN: Will you compete in the Olympics?
RH: I’d like to. I’ve always been ready to represent my country. Every year since 1996, I’ve either gone to the worlds, the Olympics, Pan-Am Games. Last year in Stuttgart was the 12th straight year I’ve gone to the worlds between the road and mountain biking. Beijing is in the plans. We have three guys for the road race and one of us will ride the time trial. We have myself, Michael Barry, Sven Tufts and Dominque Rolland. The best three guys should line up.
VN: How close are you to your compatriot, Michael Barry?
RH: We’re really close. When I went to Postal, he really took me under his wing. I really respect him a lot. We have never really crossed paths competitively, but there I was suddenly on the team and he felt like I was someone who needed some help. I went to a race in Spain at the Klasika Primavera and from there, we went straight to Girona. He really helped me get settled. He said, there is where it is and here’s what we’re doing. He mentioned there was an open apartment in his building and he helped me set up, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
VN: When you look into the crystal ball, do you see yourself trying to become a rider for GC?
RH: I haven’t really thought that far ahead. I had a lot of other things to think about last year when the options just weren’t there to continue in Europe (in 2007). With Health Net, I was just focused on starting out with the team and doing whatever was needed and to do it in the best possible way. It’s hard to say. I’m still developing as a rider. Right now, I just want to keep the direction going in a good way. Whether or not I can ride in the grand tours, that’s to be seen. I want to work toward the simple goals first and those things will take care of themselves.