When Ryder Hesjedal and Chris Horner began the Tour de France three weeks ago, both men entered the race in support roles, with no ambition of finishing inside the top-10.
Instead, Hesjedal and Horner will finish the race Sunday as the top North Americans, Hesjedal in seventh and Horner in 10th, the top riders from their respective teams.
Horner came to the Tour dedicated to helping RadioShack leader Lance Armstrong reach the podium; Hesjedal was slotted in as superdomestique for Garmin-Transitions leaders Christian Vande Velde and Tyler Farrar.
But crashes derailed the hopes of both team’s leaders — Vande Velde left the race after the Stockeu Massacre pileup on stage 2, where Farrar fractured his wrist, and Armstrong’s GC hopes went up in smoke following a high-speed crash on stage 8.
Those mishaps opened opportunities for both men.
Hesjedal, a former pro mountain bike racer, mastered the cobbles on stage 3, making the breakaway and attacking for the stage win. He finished fourth on the day and jumped into fourth overall. He also had a strong showing on the Col de Tourmalet on stage 17, again finishing fourth.
“My main goal was to be the best I’ve ever been in the Tour de France, if that meant helping Christian to a podium place, or helping Tyler in the sprints, or going for stage wins, that was always the goal,” Hesjedal said. “We started the bike race and things unfolded, not the way you want, but that’s how it goes.
“On the morning of stage 3 (after Vande Velde abandoned), Matt White said, ‘It’s open, give it the best you can.’ I didn’t wait around. I went for it, and I wanted to keep that going the whole race. I didn’t want to be high in the standings and fade away through the Tour de France. I wanted to stay up there. I’ve always believed I was capable, and here I am now.”
Horner got into a breakaway with Armstrong on stage 16, gaining 6:45 on the field, and then finished eighth on the Tourmalet on stage 17, eclipsing teammate Levi Leipheimer as the team’s top rider.
“I’ve done all my Tours as a domestique, and I came to this Tour as a domestique, make no mistake about that,” Horner said. “It just so happens that some of the time I lost when Lance crashed I made back up when I was in the break with Lance. That was nice.”
Both riders said they’d given what little was left in the tank to preserve their GC positions during Saturday’s time trial. Horner started and finished the day in 10th; Hesjedal started the day in eighth and moved into seventh, leapfrogging Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez.
Horner said he’d hoped to move up on the classification, but couldn’t have given more after his efforts riding for Armstrong during the first week, making the break on stage 16 and making the front group on the Tourmalet.
“I thought I had a safe distance for 10th place, but I was hoping to go even better, and maybe catch up on the guys in front of me if I had a really good time,” Horner said.
“But it was hard to find a rhythm out there, there was no place to recover, just wind all over, blowing you around all over the place. It would have been nice to come into the time trial fresher than I was, but it’s been a fun Tour de France. I can’t complain.”
Hesjedal admitted that after three weeks of racing, riding a windy 52km final time trial for a top-10 position at the Tour de France comes with enormous pressure.
“Today was as nerve-wracking and tense as it could be,” he said. “I just stayed as calm as possible. I knew I had good form, and it’s you against the clock. You have to get out there and stay focused. It was hard out there. There’s nothing worse than the wind blowing straight at you and slowing you down. You just don’t know if you’re keeping the speed up. It’s a hard hour-plus effort. I just stayed calm, and I think it’s worked out.”
Both men also said their top-10 GC finishes justified years of hard work. Though he’s 38, Horner has enjoyed one of his best seasons in 2010 following a 2009 season that showed the best form of his career but was repeatedly marred by injury. In April Horner took his first overall win in Europe at the Tour of the Basque Country, ahead of Spanish rider Alejandro Valverde.
“I think the win at the Basque Country set me aside as one of the top riders in the world, as well as the results I’ve had all year,” Horner said. “For some reason the Tour de France is such a big event that if you don’t go good there, nothing seems to be good enough, no matter what you win — fourth at (Amgen Tour of) California, first at the Tour of the Basque Country, first in the time trial at Basque Country, a couple of top-10s in stages at Paris-Nice, top-10 rides at Amstel, Fleche, Liege — none of those seem to justify your results like the Tour de France does. I don’t quite understand, but that’s the way it is.
“So now, with a top-10 in the Tour de France, I guess it’s justified.”
Likewise, Hesjedal said his year’s Tour showed the progression he’s made since crossing over from mountain biking in 2004 with the U.S. Postal Service team. The 2010 season has been Hesjedal’s best yet. Coming off a breakthrough stage win at the 2009 Vuelta a España, Hesjedal finished second at this year’s Amstel Gold Race and won the final stage of the Amgen Tour of California. He also placed sixth overall at the demanding Volta a Catalunya.
“It’s not just this Tour de France. The last few years I’ve consistently improved,” Hesjedal said. “I look at races like Tirreno-Adriatico, where I took eighth place, Catalunya, Pays-Basque, California, the Ardennes, the stage win at the Vuelta last year — I’m exactly where I want to be in my career and where I thought I could be. The last three weeks have just been an exclamation point on that.
“Who knows where it’s going to go? I turn 30 in December, so it’s looking good.