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Velo North American Man of the Year: Ryder Hesjedal

Giro d'Italia winner Ryder Hesjedal is our North American Man of the Year for 2012

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Editor’s note: The January 2013 issue of Velo magazine, which is on newsstands now, is our 25th annual awards issue. Our 2012 Cyclist of the Year was announced on November 29; we’ll be rolling out various other award winners throughout the month of December.

North American Man of the Year: Ryder Hesjedal

To hear Ryder Hesjedal tell it, becoming the first Canadian to win a grand tour was “pretty cool.” Hesjedal defied conventional wisdom to ride away with the pink jersey in a gripping Giro d’Italia that saw the ex-mountain biker soar to new heights.

True to his British Columbia roots, Hesjedal has taken all the success in stride. “It’s pretty cool to be the first Canadian to win a grand tour,” Hesjedal told Velo. “I always believed it was possible, but to actually do it, and do it the way that I did, it makes it pretty special.”

The way he did it was to turn the Giro upside down, riding away from the Italians on their home roads, and then snatching away the pink jersey in the final time trial in Milan.

When the Giro started, few counted the 31-year-old as a favorite. Thanks to a solid opening prologue in Denmark and, then, an even better team time trial, Hesjedal had the pole position going into the climbing stages.

Rather than fade, as the Italians expected, Hesjedal hung tough and even threw down his own attacks. His surge 3km from the top at Cervinia on stage 14 put him back into the pink jersey that was taken from him in Assisi on stage 10.

From there to Milan, Hesjedal fought a bitter, seesaw battle with Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) that went down to the final kilometers. He held firm, especially in the final stage over the Mortirolo and up the Stelvio. It was classic racing and the lanky Canadian kept Rodríguez on a short enough leash to have the pink jersey within range for the final-day TT.

It was down to the wire, but Hesjedal’s 16-second victory made history. Not only was it Canada’s first grand tour win, but also the first for Garmin-Sharp.

“No one else believed in Ryder, but we did,” said Garmin sport director Allan Peiper. “We mapped out the season back in November and made the Giro the target. We were thinking podium, but the victory came within reach. Ryder delivered. It was big stuff.”

The Giro victory caps a long, steady trajectory for Hesjedal since he turned his attention to the road full-time following the 2004 Olympic Games, his last major mountain bike race.

After steady progress across Europe, he found his home with the Slipstream organization in 2008. From there, Hesjedal began to knock on the door of major success. After a string of top-10s, he won a mountain stage at the 2009 Vuelta a España. He followed that up with sixth at the 2010 Tour, the best Canadian result since Steve Bauer’s fourth-place finish two decades ago.

When a time-trial heavy Tour was announced for 2012, Garmin brass took the Giro plan to Hesjedal at team meetings back in November. They dared him: why not ride for the win at the Giro?

“It took me about 10 minutes and then I embraced the idea,” Hesjedal said. “I prepared exclusively for the Giro — and look what happened.”

For 2013, Hesjedal has promised to return to the Giro, but this time he has his eye on the Tour. A nasty crash derailed him in 2012 and he clearly has some unfinished business in France.

“I will ride the Giro. It will be cool to have the No. 1 bib and even if I cannot win again, it’s the best preparation for the Tour anyway,” he said. “The Giro made me believe I can win a grand tour, and there’s no bigger race than the Tour, so why not?”

Yeah, why not? Hesjedal certainly isn’t afraid to think big.