By Kip Mikler , VeloNews Editor
A couple of years ago Ryder Hesjedal was a surprising young talent, a quiet kid from Canada with the physique of a high school basketball player, not a professional mountain biker. When interviewed, he didn’t say much.
Now Hesjedal’s 21, and he’s won some big races. When he speaks, as he did after winning his first NORBA cross-country race at Deer Valley, Utah, Friday afternoon, you can’t believe the bravado. Even more surprising, however, is the aggression with which Hesjedal rides. Sometimes that has hurt the 21-year-old Subaru-Gary Fisher rider, but sometimes it can be crushing to the competition.
“People sometimes give me flack for starting out fast,” said the 21-year-old after winning the 26.7-mile race on a hot, dusty and generally grueling afternoon. But Hesjedal had a reason. “I didn’t want to eat dirt. I didn’t follow anyone once.”
One thing is certain: Hesjedal has a starry future in this game. His first NORBA win was no gimme — it came on a day that had a stacked field. Finishing second to Hesjedal, 1:10 off his winning time of 2:05:36, was none other than Cadel Evans, the two-time World Cup champion from Australia.
Evans and fellow Volvo-Cannondale rider Kashi Leuchs put up a good fight, but couldn’t match Hesjedal’s power on the climbs, especially the torturous “Little Stick” climb, a wide-open inferno lasting about six to eight minutes per lap. Here, some pros were reduced to the small chainring and most to the middle. But Hesjedal rode the big ring on Little Stick, and that was the difference.
Leuchs would end up finishing third, followed by Subaru-Gary Fisher rider Pavel Cherkasov. Putting in an impressive last-lap surge was the man wearing No. 1, L.L. Bean-Mongoose rider Steve Larsen. The defending national champion started way in the back and picked off riders by the score as his form started to come around in the third of four laps. Larsen said he was relieved to be feeling better after a rough outing in West Virginia last week.
Behind Larsen was an intriguing battle between two-time Olympian Tinker Juarez and a guy you forgot about, Todd Wells. Wells, a 25-year-old IBM employee who was a promising young rider for Specialized in the mid-90s, is returning to the sport after a three-year hiatus which he used to obtain his bachelor’s degree. For the second week in a row, he called in sick to race a NORBA national. His seventh-place showing, 11 seconds behind Juarez in sixth, may mean an empty cubicle back at the office in the future.
In the women’s race, British cross-country champion Caroline Alexander proved that she has recovered quite nicely from the tough HP Women’s Challenge road race in Idaho. Just five days after the finish of HP, Alexander won the women’s cross-country race.
To earn her first NORBA win, the Specialized rider had to stop the winning machine that is Mary Grigson. The Australian Gary Fisher-Subaru rider had won five in a row, a streak dating back to last season, and was attempting to tie the record of six by Juli Furtado in 1993.
“I’m really, really surprised,” said Alexander after finishing the tough 20.5-mile race in 1:54:03. “I thought Friday was too soon to be able to push myself. My coach said, ‘Please, please only ride 80 percent.”
Eighty percent was all the British climbing ace needed to beat an ailing Grigson by 1:15. Ruthie Matthes (Trek-Volkswagen) finished third, 2:32 off Alexander’s pace.
CHEVY TRUCKS NORBA CROSS-COUNTRY, Deer Valley, UT. June 29.
Pro men: 1. Ryder Hesjedal (Can), Subaru-Gary Fisher, 26.7mi in 2:05:36; 2. Cadel Evans (Aus), Volvo-Cannondale, at 1:10; 3. Kashi Leuchs (NZ), Volvo-Cannondale, at 2:19; 4. Pavel Cherkassov (Rus), Subaru-Gary Fisher, at 2:52; 5. Steve Larsen, L.L. Bean-Mongoose, at 3:18; 6. Tinker Juarez, Volvo-Cannondale, at 3:38; 7. Todd Wells, at 3:49; 8. Seamus McGrath (Can), Haro-Lee Dungaree, at 4:20; 9. Carl Swenson, RLX Polo Sport, at 4:38; 10. Paul Rowney (Aus), Yeti-Pearl Izumi, at 5:33.
Pro women: 1. Caroline Alexander (GB), Specialized, 20.5mi in 1:54:03; 2. Mary Grigson (Aus), Subaru-Gary Fisher, at 1:15; 3. Ruthie Matthes, Trek-Volkswagen, at 2:32; 4. Jimena Florit (Arg), at 3:35; 5. Chrissy Redden (Can), Subaru-Gary Fisher, at 5:06; 6. Shonny Vanlandingham, SoBe-Headshok, at 5:51; 7. Audrey Augustin, Aeal-GT, at 6:49; 8. Trish Sinclair (Can), Ford Devinci, at 7:28; 9. Ann Grande, Kona-Ford Focus, at 8:12; 10. Nancy Busching, SoBe-Headshok, at 8:50.