Ryder Hesjedal is not quite ready to target the yellow jersey, but the big Canadian knows he has no choice but to step in and replace Christian Vande Velde at the Tour de France.
Vande Velde, whom Hesjedal helped to a fifth-place finish in 2008, crashed out of the race on stage 2, leaving Garmin-Transitions without its best rider to challenge for the race’s coveted prize.
After a superb stage-3 performance over the tough cobbles that saw him finish fourth on the day, former mountain biker Hesjedal sits in fourth place overall with more a minute on some of the bigger favorites.
It means he has no choice but to take over Vande Velde’s mantle, although the freedom he once enjoyed at the start of the race is now over.
“Now I have to look at it for the general. I’m not going to be getting up the road anytime soon,” Hesjedal told AFP before the start of the fourth stage to Reims on Wednesday.
Garmin-Transitions manager Jonathan Vaughters praised Hejsedal after his superb ride to Arenberg on Tuesday, suggesting he might fit into Vande Velde’s role quite easily.
“We can’t forget that Ryder is a very capable climber,” Vaughters told AFP, later reporting on his Twitter site that he could see the Canadian “aim for the top five.”
At least seven or eight riders have significantly more experience than Hesjedal in major tours, so he is not getting carried away.
Three stages in the Alps beginning Saturday will also prove a big test, although he is hoping his grand-tour experience — which includes an historic stage win on the Tour of Spain for Canada in 2009 — comes to the fore.
Hesjedal said that to help someone on the GC, a rider has to be capable of challenging.
“I’ve obviously ridden the GC in a lot of races, so it’s nothing new to me. But we’ll see how it comes and take my chances,” he added. “It’s going to be a big test (this weekend) so we’ll see once we get through there. That should be a good indicator of which way the race is going ahead of the mountains.”
This weekend the ski stations of Rousses and Morzine-Avoriaz will host the first two summit finishes, and perhaps the first real battles between bigger favorites like Alberto Contador (Astana), Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) and Lance Armstrong (Team RadioShack).
Tuesday ninth stage follows the race’s first rest day and is also in the Alps, but finishes at the end of a long descent from the Col de la Madeleine.
Whether the course rises or falls, Hesjedal said he is ready to give it his best shot.
“I definitely like the longer climbs where you can get into a good rhythm, but I’ve also shown that I can race well on the shorter, more explosive climbs like you get on the Tour of the Basque Country,” he said.
“But I’m still developing. I’m pretty comfortable on the bike, and if I get over those kind of climbs in the right kind of position, I can definitely hold it to the bottom.”