Ryder Hesjedal talks about the special ‘white roads’ of Eroica

Hesjedal racing ‘white roads,’ then catching flight to start Paris-Nice next day

Hesjedal racing ‘white roads,’ then catching flight to start Paris-Nice next day

There was no way Ryder Hesjedal was going to miss racing on the “white roads” of Tuscany in Saturday’s exciting battle over the strade bianche at the Monte Pasche Eroica.

The bike is tuned, the beard is gone and Hesjedal is ready to hit the strade bianche. | Andrew Hood photo
The bike is tuned, the beard is gone and Ryder Hesjedal is ready to hit the strade bianche ... and then dash to Paris | Andrew Hood photo

Hesjedal will be aiming for victory over the gravel roads of Tuscany, then jump on an evening flight to France to start Paris-Nice the next day. Most riders might be hesitant to include such late-hour travel before a race as important as Paris-Nice, but Hesjedal has an admitted love affair with the Italian semi-classic.

Hesjedal is in Tuscany and will be scouting the route over the next few days to prepare for the 190km route from Gaiole in Chianti to Sienna. Hesjedal, who recently shaved off his winter beard for the racing season, spoke with VeloNews upon his arrival in Italy.

VeloNews: You’ve really taken a liking to Eroica, what makes the race so appealing to you?

Ryder Hesjedal: The chance to race on those historic white gravel roads across Tuscany, what else can you say? It’s a special day, there’s nothing like it the entire season. They put it last year in the Giro, so that says a lot about how great it is. I just love it since the first time I raced it. Within the first 10km of that first race, I was in a breakaway. I was off on the adventure and I’ve been hooked ever since.

VN: After some close calls (two 10ths and a fifth in three starts), I’m sure you’d love to win it?

RH: For the type of course it is, it’s very selective, very hilly, especially in the end, it’s a race that suits me well. I’d love to win it. It’s one of my favorite races of the year. I’ve been there a few times and have seen a few different scenarios play out. Being close makes you want to keep taking a crack at it. Last year, I was in the front group on the approach to Sienna with five other guys. I just didn’t have the legs, but the podium was right there.

VN: You’re racing Eroica and then starting Paris-Nice the next day, how are you working out the travel?

RH: I didn’t want to miss it, even though it’s the day before the start of Paris-Nice. I will catch a flight from Pisa to Orly. I will miss dinner, but that’s OK. There was no way I was going to miss Eroica. I’ve shown over the years I can handle a lot of race days, so the travel shouldn’t be too bad.

VN: How does your mountain biking background help in the race?

RH: You’ve got to be comfortable on the bike. I ride roads like that all the time at home in Canada, so I am used to it. There are a lot of gravel roads around Girona where I live in Spain as well, so I ride them often. Having that experience helps you in the cornering and just being comfortable on the bike, so you’re not fighting against your bike and you can save all your strength when you need it at the end of the race.

The route of the 2011 Monte Pasche Eroica | La Gazetta dello Sport
The route of the 2011 Monte Pasche Eroica | La Gazetta dello Sport

VN: What are the road surfaces like?

RH: Well, I’ve only raced it in the dry, so from what I saw in last year’s Giro, having it in the wet would change it quite a bit. The roads are hard-packed, with a fine layer of loose gravel on top. You slide around a little bit. There are some guys who are not used to not having a solid, firm tarmac under their wheels. It’s pretty funny when you’re out there and you see some of the guys who haven’t done the race before. That’s what makes the race so interesting and fun.

VN: Is there any special technique to riding the gravel?

RH: Not necessarily. It’s like anything, once you’re in it, it’s all about feeling comfortable on the bike. You kind of race them like you would the cobbles. There’s a big fight to get onto them and get position in the pack. Once you’re on the gravel, you try to stay light. There are some riders who are taking risks, but anyone who’s a good bike handler shouldn’t have much of a problem with them. The key is to feel comfortable and not waste energy fighting to control the bike.

VN: What’s your bike set-up like for the race?

RH: It really depends if it’s wet. Fortunately every year I’ve raced it, it’s been dry or at least not wet. A few sectors were soft here or there, but nothing like we saw in the Giro last year. If it’s raining, it would change the bike quite a bit. You don’t need a traditional classics set-up that you’d see for the cobbles. The course is not that punishing on the wheels and the end is very hilly, so you still need to utilize lightweight material. For the dry, I’ll be riding a 24mm tire and I am still debating about my wheel selection. I will be testing a few options over the next couple of days. I’m learning toward the carbon on the rear and the alloy on the front. I find the alloy just gives you a little nicer feel on the front when on that twitchy kind of gravel surface.

Riders on the strade bianche in 2007. | Graham Watson photo

VN: Is there any particular gravel section that proves decisive or particularly difficult?

RH: More toward the latter part of the race. They get hillier in the end, but it’s more or less the nature of the terrain that really makes the selection. The guys who are riding the strongest get through the gravel sectors the best. It’s still more your legs that make the selection than the gravel roads. There are a couple of long ones that shake up the bunch a little bit, but there’s time to come back together. It’s really fast and hilly in the end. That’s what makes it a pretty good bike race.

VN: What’s it like coming into Sienna for the finale?

RH: That’s part of the draw of the race. It’s such a spectacular setting at the end of the day. Coming into the historic piazza at Sienna is just epic. It’s bike racing in Italy, which doesn’t get any better than that. It’s one of the first big races in an important part of the season. If I could win at Eroica or be on the podium, I would be more than happy. That’s what I am aiming for.