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Giro d'Italia

Hesjedal returns with confidence, bolstered squad for Giro defense

Defending Giro champion Ryder Hesjedal has spent almost a year dreaming of another maglia rosa and will open his defense Saturday

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NAPLES, Italy (VN) — Defending Giro d’Italia champion Ryder Hesjedal has arrived to Naples, Italy, this week surrounded by a strong, purpose-built Garmin-Sharp team that is bent on delivering the Canadian to Breschia in pink in three weeks’ time.

“Winning the Giro d’Italia in 2012 was a dream come true and it will be a true honor to pin on the No. 1 bib on Saturday,” Hesjedal said in a team press release. “My season has been built around the Giro again this year with the goal of defending my title and the whole team is coming into it very focused and extremely motivated. I want to do my best to honor the race, to honor the No. 1 bib, and take it from there, day-by-day. I know we have a great team to be able to do that, and we will work hard, every day, with our goal in mind.”

Hesjedal will be supported in the Giro’s mountains by Christian Vande Velde, Peter Stetina, Tom Danielson, and Thomas Dekker. Vande Velde and Stetina were key in his 2012 overall win and the squad should prove even stronger with the addition of Danielson, who was eighth in the Tour de France in 2011. The U.S.-registered team has also brought a fleet of diesel engines to the season’s first grand tour, with David Millar, Nathan Haas, Ramunas Navardauskas, and Robbie Hunter rounding out the roster with the power to keep Hesjedal positioned well over the race’s hectic first week.

“Our team is built around our leader and defending champion, Ryder, and our goal is to do our best race and defend his title,” director Charly Wegelius said in a release. “We have put together a strong and well-balanced roster, with a focus on climbers to support Ryder in the mountains. The team is very motivated for what we know will be a grueling but beautiful race and we look forward to Saturday’s start.”

Hesjedal took home the first grand tour title for the Garmin squad and for Canada when he blitzed the Giro last May and took a narrow win over Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha). He said in Thursday’s pre-race press conference that the victory — the biggest of his career — has had him chasing the feeling for almost a year.

“To be able to win last year was the greatest thing I’ve done in my sporting career, it motivates you so much,” he said. “I’ve been fixed on this Giro, getting to the same point as I was when I started last year. I have the confidence from accomplishing it last year. It’s been an amazing year being the Giro winner.”

Hesjedal’s 2012 campaign was waylaid early in the Tour de France when he was caught up in the large, sixth-stage crash that would become known as the “Metz Massacre.” Battered, The Canadian recovered in time for the Olympics Games, but has only recently shown signs of the engine that delivered him to Milan in pink one year ago.

It was Hesjedal who launched a long-range attack at Liège–Bastogne–Liège last month that eventually acted as a launchpad for teammate Dan Martin’s first classics win. Martin is not at the Giro, but the Garmin squad will look to pay back its captain with a second maglia rosa. With the confidence of a pink jersey on the wall at home, Hesjedal will look to repay the team with another title.

“It’s different to come back as the winner; I enjoy it and it gives me confidence,” he said on Thursday. “I was able to do it last year. Everyone here has proven themselves and shown ready for the challenge. I know a few climbs in the race, I did the recon in the long TT, I had a lot of racing this spring, so there wasn’t too much time to see much of it up until this point. But when the races are hard, it all runs together and you can’t make out the difference.”

With 21 days of racing set to open in Naples on Saturday, Hesjedal is hoping to be the one who is making the differences on the road.

Gregor Brown contributed to this report.