Garmin-Transitions rider Ryder Hesjedal hoped to stand on the Tour de France podium for a reason other than being voted most aggressive rider Tuesday.
But one day after his five of his Garmin teammates crashed on the Col du Stockeu, knocking Christian Vande Velde out of the race and badly roughing up sprinter Tyler Farrar, Hesjedal went on a solo escape across the cobblestones that nearly netted him a stage win.
It wasn’t enough to erase the sting of Monday’s crashes, but Hesjedal’s ride went a long way in boosting team morale,— although the Canadian rider said the mood at the breakfast table Wednesday morning wasn’t as grim as some might have guessed.
“We’re still fired up,” Hesjedal said. “We’re sorry to see Christian have to go, but he came to see us all before he left, and got us really motivated. Our spirits are still high. I would have liked to take the win (Tuesday), for him and for the team, but there are still a few more opportunities.”
With Farrar nursing a fractured wrist, Garmin was looking to Johan Van Summeren and Martijn Maaskant, both top-five finishers at Paris-Roubaix, to contend for the stage victory.
To give his teammates a free ride, Hesjedal jumped in the early move.
“My best chance, and to help the team, was to get up the road,” Hesjedal said. “And if I could get a head start on the pavé, that was going to be the best-case scenario.”
Riding the cobblestones comes naturally for the former mountain bike racer who stood on the second step of world championship cross-country podiums at the under-23 and elite level.
After racing off-road at the 2004 Olympics, Hesjedal began transitioning towards road racing, riding as a stagiaire with the U.S. Postal Service team in 2004 and in 2005 with Discovery Channel. He spent the 2006 season with Phonak, and after that team folded he returned to North American road racing for one season, riding with Health Net-Maxxis. He joined the Slipstream-Chipotle team in 2008 and has been part of that program since as it evolved into Garmin-Chipotle and finally Garmin-Transitions.
It was during the 2008 season that Hesjedal’s knack for riding the dirt revealed itself in the pro peloton. He finished tenth on the white gravel Tuscan roads of the 2008 Monte Paschi Eroica — the same roads where Cadel Evans won a stage at this year’s Giro d’Italia — and repeated with another tenth-place finish in 2009. This year he finished fifth.
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.
Hesjedal thought he might be adding another stage win to his palmarés when he attacked his breakaway companions with 26.5km to go.
“I had good legs, and I thought I had a shot,” Hesjedal said. “That’s the only way you can ride (cobbles) at the end. It was clear I was the strongest in the break. Then I was getting through the pavé and the gap wasn’t coming down too bad, it was holding around 20 or 30 seconds, and with a small group, you don’t know what the interest is behind.”
The Garmin rider was caught by the lead chase group just 6km from the line; in that group was Evans, another former mountain-bike racer. Hesjedal made a last-ditch effort to jump from the group in the final kilometer, but came up short and finished the stage fourth.
“I thought it could work out, but when Fabian Cancellara is working hard, that’s going to limit that chance,” Hesjedal said. “But I was happy to stay with that group and get to the line and get a good result.”
His effort brought Garmin significant TV time and earned him the Prix de la Combativite award; it also moved him into fourth overall.
Though he’s a former Canadian national time trial champion and a respectable climber, Hesjedal won’t be looking to maintain a top-10 GC position. Instead, after Tuesday’s solo effort nearly brought him the stage win, the Garmin rider said he’d had a sniff of the Tour podium — now he wants a bite.
“For sure (a Tour stage win) is a dream,” Hesjedal said. “After winning stages at the Vuelta and California, I feel confident. If I can play my cards right and get the right opportunity, why not?”