By Andrew Hood
Ryder Hesjedal almost rode away with last year’s Monte Paschi Eroica, the new but already wildly popular semi-classic over the dirt roads of Tuscany.
The 28-year-old Canadian attacked out of a leading breakaway and was only caught with less than 10km from the line by eventual winner Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank) and runner-up Alessandro Ballan (Lampre).
Hesjedal will be back with a strong Garmin-Slipstream team to tackle the 190km course littered with dusty sectors of the famous “strade bianche” – or white roads.
Held over dusty gravel roads split into eight sectors called “sterrati,” the Monte Paschi Eroica is already considered a major event despite the fact that 2009 represents only its third year on the calendar.
VeloNews European correspondent Andrew Hood spoke with Hesjedal about his ride last year and what it takes to win on the gravel roads. Here are excerpts from the interview:
VeloNews: You were away in a long solo break last year and finished up 10th, did you think you had the win in your legs?
Ryder Hesjedal: It was just one of those days when it was all clicking. I came out of Valenciana feeling strong and I was running at the front all day. I got into the break right away and there were about 10-12 of us. Going through the different sectors, I just felt great. I ended up going by myself and I was hoping that someone would come with me. I was on my way and I figured I would just go for it. I was out front for about 30km alone. I made it to the last sector by myself with about 10km to go when two strong guys, Cancellara and Ballan, decided to go out. They just caught me at the top of the last sector. I wasn’t going any slower, it’s that Cancellara was just faster than anyone. He did one hard acceleration, and he and Ballan were on their way. I waited for the other guys and I came in and still managed 10th.
VN: What is the condition of the gravel roads?
RH: It’s a well-driven dirt road. It’s real smooth. The uphills and downhills can get a bit looser. The road gets broken up from the cars. The flatter sectors are pretty smooth. They’re old chalk Roman roads, pretty smooth and quick. It can be tricky with a loose top layer like any dirt road. The route is different than a northern classic. It’s hilly and lumpy there in Tuscany, so it’s good for someone who can climb and do well on the technical stuff.
VN: Is there any special technique for riding well on the gravel?
RH: The climbs and descents are definitely the harder aspects of the race. You have to know how to distribute your weight on the bike to maintain the power on the bike. It can be pretty loose on the descents. It’s a good race for me. I am comfortable on the gravel. It’s good fun.
VN: Does your mountain biking background give you any sort of advantage?
RH: I’m super-comfortable because I ride a lot of gravel roads in Victoria. There are a lot of logging roads and there’s a decommissioned railway that goes from Victoria to the coast. It’s a 60km return ride all on gravel, so I ride it a lot. It’s not like you’re dropping roots or boulders like on a mountain bike. I just feel real comfortable in that race. Now that it’s in the spring, it fits in perfectly with the racing schedules. It’s only in its third year, but I feel like a part of that race from the start.
VN: Anything special for the setup for the bikes?
RH: We just ride the Roubaix setup. We use a little heavier tire, something all-terrain, 24mm, a little bit wider. We use the carbon Zipp wheels to take the harder impact of the roads. It’s the all-round classics setup.
VN: What’s your race schedule looking like for the rest of 2009?
RH: I stopped last year after Beijing, so I had a nice period off the bike. I came back at Tour Down Under and got back over here for Tour Med. After Eroica, I have Tirreno-Adriatico, Milan-San Remo and then one thing different is I will ride Basque Country to get ready for the Ardennes. Last year, I got the call up for Flanders due to injuries. This year is a little more balanced. I will do the Giro and Tour again. I am looking forward to getting back to those races.
VN: Any other big changes from last year’s schedule?
RH: I’ll be racing San Remo for the first time, I am looking forward to that. Riding Basque Country ahead of the classics is key. To have a stage race in your legs makes a difference. You see all the guys running good in the Ardennes all came from Basque Country.
VN: What are your expectations for the Ardennes?
RH: I hope to be in the mix. Based on last year, I am looking forward to it. Last year at Flèche Wallonne, I think I had the lamest flat tire ever on a road bike. I was dropped off by Millar on the wheel of Cadel Evans right at the base of the Mur de Huy and my wheel went flat with 1km to go. I know I can ride with the best at Flèche and I think I can do better at Liège this year. I was in the lead group when the attacks came. Coming out of Basque Country and having two grandies in my legs, I know I can be there.
VN: And for the Giro, the team will have a tough battle to defend its team time trial victory?
RH: We’re going to try to recreate that action. If we can do that, it would be great. It’s a different kind of course this year. We’re going to try to race the race and see how it goes. We will keep it in the back of the mind that the main goal is still the Tour. It’s still a grand tour; it’s the Giro, so I would love to be performing, going for stage wins, getting into the breaks. It’s all about racing hard.