On the hardest mountaintop finish of the 2010 Tour de France, Canadian Ryder Hesjedal emerged from the thick mist atop the Tourmalet to cross the line fourth, just behind Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) and the two best climbers in the world, Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck.
Behind him, the peloton straggled across in ones and twos. Hesjedal’s strong performance vaulted him from 10th overall to 8th, heading into the final time trial Saturday. Hesjedal said he’s having a blast in his third Tour.
“I’m just doing what I love to do,” Hesjedal said outside his team bus Thursday evening.
After Saxo Bank team drilled the pace well into the 19km hors categorie Tourmalet climb, Schleck fired the shot everyone knew was coming. At 10km to go, Schleck stomped the pedals and the race came apart, giving everyone left behind an honest assessment of their current spot in the pecking order.
Hesjedal motored into the first group chasing Schleck and Contador that included Denis Menchov and Robert Gesink (both Rabobank), Chris Horner (RadioShack), Jurgen Van Den Brouck (Omega-Lotto) and Rodriguez. Just outside a kilometer to go, Rodriguez punched out, and only Hesjedal could give chase. He came across fourth, 1:27 down on Schleck.
“I just felt great,” Hesjeadal said. “I’ve been feeling better and better this last week. I felt great yesterday. I just knew I was going to have a good day. I stayed calm all day, and that was it. Went up the climb and I was able to follow, and put in a move there at the end.”
Garmin’s Australian director Matt White — who gave Hesjedal a bear hug after the finish — was a bit more effusive than his rider.
“This is definitely the biggest ride of his career,” White said. “His biggest ride previously was 2nd on Amstel Gold. But I think he would trade finishing fourth on the Tourmalet and moving up on the GC at the Tour de France any day.”
RadioShack’s Chris Horner, who came off the chase group’s pace, was quick to compliment Hesjedal after the finish as well.
With Hesjedal in eighth overall, it is almost easy to forget that Hesjedal came to the Tour with the sole intention of riding for Christian Vande Velde. When Vande Velde crashed out on stage 2, White told the rest of the team it was time to step up. Hesjedal did.
“Maybe if Christian was here, Ryder wouldn’t have got this opportunity. A lot of guys get nervous [with new pressure],” White said. “But Ryder loves it. He loves the attention.”
Watching the race back home on television, Vande Velde was psyched for his teammate.
“I thought it was an amazing performance,” Vande Velde told VeloNews in an email. “He has gained fitness, confidence and knowledge of his capabilities over the last three weeks. His fitness relative to the others in the race has increased by a ton and if this race continued for another week, he would continue to improve without a doubt. I think that he still has the chance to move up another spot on GC before Sunday when the race is over.”
The day began with heavy rain, and dense fog shrouded the Tourmalet all day, reducing visibility to less than 40 feet at points.
“Drama-plus, this kind of stage. I knew [the weather] was going to add to the epic nature,” Hesjedal said.
Climbing towards the fog-cloaked Tourmalet, not being able to see the towering mountain above might have made it easier to concentrate on the task at hand, Hesjedal said — “You just focus on the wheel in front of you.”
Now, Hesjedal is just focusing on the 52km time trial Saturday, where he is confident he can defend his GC position and possibly even move up. Rodriguez is in 7th at 7:03; Gesink is in 6th at 6:41.
“I feel really good. I think the longer [time trial] will suit me even better. I feel the best I’ve felt in the whole Tour. It’s a good place to be in with a time trial coming up.”
Hesjedal’s increasingly good form at the Tour was planned months ago. He started racing hard in March, raced some classics in April — including Amstel where he was second — and then took a break after the Amgen Tour of California, where he won a stage.
“I kinda struggled through the Tour de Suisse, but I didn’t train to be good there. I just wanted to use the race to push the condition,” he said. “It was a really hard race. To get through without going too deep, I got it just right. I just relaxed the whole time, and was confident that I would be good here at the Tour.”
“I’ve been a part of this team from the very beginning,” said Hesjedal, who joined Garmin in 2008 from HealthNet-Maxxis. “I think I’m showing that the team can count on me, and that there’s room to improve. I’m excited for the next years.”
Hesjedal’s performance in France has his teammate back in Girona, Spain, champing at the bit. “I can’t wait to be back at full steam with the new Ryder on the team,” Vande Velde said.