Easy Ryder calm before the mountain storm

Insiders say there is no stress around the Garmin breakfast table on the eve of the three-day Giro showdown in northern Italy

VEDELAGO, Italy (VN) – When Ryder Hesjedal retires from cycling, perhaps he should consider becoming a professional poker player.

Hesjedal (Garmin-Barracuda) doesn’t give anything away. He is so calm, cool and collected going into this weekend’s nail-biting finale to the Giro d’Italia, you would never know that he was on the cusp of becoming the first Canadian to win a grand tour.

If Hesjedal is cracking under the pressure, he certainly isn’t showing it.

“There’s no sense in being crazy and getting stressed out,” Hesjedal told VeloNews with a laugh. “I am pretty laid back. At the end of the day, it’s still just a bike race.”

Well, the Giro might be just another 21 days in the saddle for Hesjedal, but the cycling world is at the edge of its seat as the 95th corsa rosa roars into three decisive final stages. Hesjedal made it through Thursday’s jaunt to remain within striking range of race leader Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), just 30 seconds behind the pink jersey, but he’s somewhat bewildered at the growing hub-bub around his Giro ride.

In a sport known for its uptight and nervous GC contenders, Hesjedal is without question one of the most relaxed riders in the bunch. The vibe with Hesjedal is always chilled out and mellow. There is never any outward sense of tension, nerves or undue stress.

A former mountain biker from Canada’s British Columbia, it’s perhaps no coincidence that Hesjedal likes to spend his off-seasons on the beaches of Maui.

Those close to him say that hasn’t changed over the past few weeks as he’s emerged as Public Enemy No. 1 to the Giro’s top favorites.

“Ryder is so laid-back, he’s almost horizontal,” Garmin sport director Allan Peiper said. “I haven’t seen any nervous changes in him at all. He is quieter than normal, but in a good way, with his feet firmly on the ground.”

While Hesjedal has kept his cool demeanor off the bike during this Giro, on the bike he’s been a beast, proving on an international stage what many observers of his steady progression since joining Garmin in 2008 already knew.

All of the top favorites, from Rodríguez to Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale) and Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD), know they need to take more time on Hesjedal going into Sunday’s final time trial. While Hesjedal is not a time trial specialist on par with the likes of Denis Menchov or Levi Leipheimer, many expect Hesjedal to take time on the climbers in Milan.

That means one thing: that Basso and company have to attack, and that Hesjedal has to hang on.

Hesjedal’s Garmin teammate Christian Vande Velde knows what it’s like to wear the pink jersey and says that Hesjedal is in an enviable position.

“If we can keep it status quo, it’s more of a question of people trying to put time into him. The pressure is on them, so he just has to stay with them,” Vande Velde told VeloNews before the start of Thursday’s stage. “Tomorrow is going to be another big day. And the way he looked yesterday, I think it destroyed some people’s mental fortitude.”

Rodríguez knows that he needs more time than 30 seconds to have any real chance to win his first grand tour, but he also says he’s not the only one who has to worry about Hesjedal.

“We all need to attack Ryder, but we have seen that he is very strong in the mountains,” Rodríguez said Thursday. “Pampeago (Friday’s summit) is good for me. I am not going to wait. If I have the legs, I am going to attack, because if we do not drop Ryder, he could well be the winner of this Giro.”

That kind of talk would put many pros on edge, but Hesjedal has done well in grand tours, including a mountaintop stage win at the Vuelta a España and a breakout sixth in the 2010 Tour de France, the best Tour ride by a Canadian since Steve Bauer was fourth back in the 1980s.

That earned Hesjedal well-deserved media attention back home, but it’s done nothing to change his demeanor. More than anything, it’s only spurred him to work harder and bolster his confidence.

Last November, Hesjedal sat down with the Garmin brass to map out the 2012 season. Team boss Jonathan Vaughters presented a challenge to Hesjedal: why not ride for the GC at the Giro? Hesjedal embraced it and came into this season quieter than normal, skipping races such as Montepaschi Strade Bianche, where he’s traditionally gone well, and only started to show hints of form during the Ardennes classics.

Now, after two stints in the pink jersey, Hesjedal is poised to take it back if he can survive two harrowing stages across the Italian Alps.

One of his key helpers in these two final mountain stages is Coloradan Peter Stetina, who says that Hesjedal’s ride shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.

“From the beginning, Ryder said he’s come here to ride the GC. And the world has finally taken stock of that. We’re relaxed at the dinner table every night. We’re joking and we’re enjoying sticking it to Italy,” Stetina said. “Ryder is such a laid-back guy, he is really focused on what he needs to do. He knows when he has the goods that not many people can follow that.”

Vande Velde, one of Hesjedal’s closest friends at Garmin, said no one should confuse Hesjedal’s easy-going mindset with a lack of desire or drive.

“No, no, he’s not nervous. Things are going better than expected, but don’t misjudge him (because he seems relaxed),” Vande Velde said. “He’s definitely got the eye of the tiger. He was not happy getting third place (Wednesday) – he wants to win this Giro.”

Despite the growing hubbub – including Norwegian TV, which seems to have adopted him as one of their own – Hesjedal has not let the growing expectations get to him.

“I expect to go up them pretty well,” Hesjedal said of Friday’s and Saturday’s climbs. “The Stelvio is good for me. The longer, the better.”

Whether or not Hesjedal wins this Giro will unfold over three gripping, intense stages. One thing is sure, the GC battle will be anything but laid-back.