Tuesdays With Wilcockson: Hesjedal was always a star in the making

Ryder Hesjedal takes his career as a professional bike race ultra-seriously. He trains obsessively, he never shirks from working hard for his teammates, and whenever he gets a chance to ride aggressively he grabs it without a second thought. That’s why his magnificent performance in the 95th Giro d’Italia—the first Canadian to finish on the podium of a grand tour, let alone win one—didn’t surprise those who know him well. Even if his victory shocked the European cognoscenti.

So, you may ask, why has the 31-year-old Garmin-Barracuda team man taken so long to reach the top of the cycling world?

The answer to that question is a complex one because Hesjedal has always had the talent to excel at the highest level, though we’ve only seen flashes of his capabilities in a wide range of races over the past decade. But befitting his calm and dignified manner, the British Columbian has shown infinite patience with his career and been quietly confident that one day his time would come. Now it’s here.

The Italians say that men capable of winning grand tours—they call them fuoriclasse—give hints of their great talent at an early age. Hesjedal, whose great-grandparents were farmers who emigrated from Norway in the 19th century, certainly did that. He grew up in the small rural community of Highlands, to the northwest of Victoria on Vancouver Island, where Hesjedal’s father made a meager living selling firewood that he cut in the pine forests. Dad and mom later took jobs with the municipality, while son Ryder showed a penchant for sports, excelling at baseball and lacrosse.

Everyone rode bikes in the Highlands, and young Hesjedal soon developed a love for riding his hard-tail Norco mountain bike on the single-track trails that crisscrossed this hilly region of lakes, woodlands and wilderness. The District of Highlands Web site says that its residents are “both self-reliant and cooperative.” That certainly characterizes Hesjedal, who began competitive cycling in his early teens as part of British Columbia’s booming mountain-bike scene.

Like other cycling journalists, I was first impressed by Hesjedal’s talent when he finished second in the junior men’s cross-country race behind Frenchman Julien Absalon at the 1998 world mountain bike championships at Mont-Ste-Anne in eastern Canada. Three years later, at the mountain bike worlds in Vail, Colorado, we saw the lanky Canadian again place second to Absalon, this time in the under-23 category. That same week, his fellow Victoria resident Roland Green, six years older than Hesjedal, won the pro men’s world cross-country title.

At the time, it seemed a given that Hesjedal would follow in Green’s footsteps, especially when at age 21 he won a 2002 World Cup cross-country at Les Gets in the French Alps, beating a field of champions that included off-road legend Thomas Frischknecht. But, at 6-foot-2 and 159 pounds, Hesjedal was big for a cross-country racer compared with more compact rivals such as Absalon, Cadel Evans and Miguel Martinez.

Like Evans before him, Hesjedal was already integrating road racing into his schedule by signing with Rabobank’s espoirs team in 2002. He quickly showed his talent by winning the French amateur classic Paris-Mantes in April that year, making a long solo break to finish more than three minutes ahead of the field. And in September, shortly after that World Cup victory at les Gets, Hesjedal showed his stage-race strength by winning Spain’s four-day Volta a Cataluña de l’Avenir.

But mountain biking remained first on his agenda, knowing he had a chance of Olympic glory in Athens. He won the prestigious NORBA national series in 2003 (and again in ’04) and placed second in the pro men’s cross-country at the ’03 worlds in Lugano, Switzerland—only beaten by Belgian veteran Filip Meirhaeghe, who would admit to using EPO prior to the ’04 Olympics.

Hesjedal was also preparing his post-Athens career by joining Lance Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service team in 2004. So he debuted in European pro road racing that spring. I chatted with him in Bruges before the start of his first classic, the Tour of Flanders, where he told me how pleased he was to play a part in helping new teammate George Hincapie win the previous week’s Three Days of De Panne. Hesjedal didn’t finish Flanders, but a week later, in Spain, he got into the winning, eight-man breakaway at the extremely hilly Klasika Primavera in the Basque Country: He placed fifth behind winner Alejandro Valverde, and ahead of the Italian stars Damiano Cunego and Gilberto Simoni.

That early success was almost forgotten in a year dedicated to winning an Olympic gold medal — a dream that ended when he flatted five minutes into the dusty Athens cross-country. He didn’t finish the race and dropped out of the worlds a couple of weeks later, and never started another mountain bike race.

So, in essence, Hesjedal’s road career didn’t really begin until age 24 as a domestique with Discovery Channel in 2005. He worked for Hincapie in the northern classics and, in stage racing, for Italian Paolo Savoldelli at the Tour de Romandie (placing 32nd, only two minutes behind his team leader) and at his first grand tour, the Giro, which Savoldelli won. Hesjedal valiantly did his team duty at that Giro, even after a bad crash on stage seven in the south of Italy; but he eventually pulled out (with 15 others) on a savage stage 13 over five passes in the Dolomites.

Hesjedal did enough that season to be recruited in 2006 by the ambitious Phonak team, whose leader would be Floyd Landis. I interviewed both of these North Americans at their pre-season training camp in Majorca. Hesjedal said he hadn’t given any interviews since dropping out of mountain biking, and I found him to be quietly ambitious about the year ahead. He was hoping to return to the Giro, a race he said he really liked, but Phonak put him on another program — which included taking fourth overall at May’s Volta a Cataluña (thanks to fourth place on the mountaintop finish in Andorra) and 17th overall at the Dauphiné.

His only grand tour in 2006 was the Vuelta a España, where he was lying a promising 21st before he abandoned the race on the 11th stage, with a view to riding a strong world championships in Salzburg, Austria. Perhaps he should have finished the Vuelta because he placed only 22nd in the worlds’ time trial and didn’t finish the road race, and when the doping-scandalized Phonak team folded at year’s end, Hesjedal was left without a team.

His career in limbo, he spent 2007 with HealthNet-Maxxis on the U.S. domestic scene, with 10th place at the Amgen Tour of California the highlight. The ever-optimistic Canadian didn’t give up his apartment in Girona, Spain, confident that he would be back on the Continent before too long. And that was the case. He was signed by Jonathan Vaughters at Garmin-Chipotle and so his European road career finally received its real beginning in 2008, just four years ago.

Since then, Hesjedal has improved every year, growing in confidence at the grand tours and performing at the highest level in the spring classics. The highlights have been diverse: aiding teammates Christian Vande Velde and Brad Wiggins place fourth overall in the Tours de France of 2008 and 2009 respectively; placing fifth at the 2009 Clasica San Sebastian before winning stage 12 of the Vuelta in a summit finish at Alto de Velefique; and, in 2010, placing second to Philippe Gilbert at the Amstel Gold Race, winning a stage of the Amgen Tour of California, placing sixth at the Tour de France (after team leader Vande Velde crashed out and including brilliant rides on the cobblestones of northern France and the mountaintop finish on the Tourmalet), and third at the GP de Montréal behind Robert Gesink and Peter Sagan.

His 2011 season was something of a transition year, the highlight being Garmin’s victory in the Tour de France team time trial and overall team prize, while Hesjedal rode support for sixth-place Tom Danielson. Perhaps 2012 would have seen similar results, but in the winter team manger Vaughters and new team director Allan Peiper persuaded the British Colombian to be the Garmin team leader at the Giro.

Now, with his astounding victory in Italy, Hesjedal can truly say his career has taken off!

 

Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson

Image: Photoreporter Sirotti

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23 comments

  1. Ray G

    I was out for a group ride on Sunday when Ryder was blazing a TT trail through Milan. A fellow cyclist asked me what I thought about the chances of Ryder Hesjedal taking the top spot in the Giro. I thought a 31sec deficit was going to be tough to claw back and I added either way Ryder was going to make Canadian cycling history by just finishing on the podium, and I was content with that. I was wrong, dead wrong …and I couldn’t be happier. When I got back from my ride and I saw the overall results I welled up and I’m not ashamed to admit it. Given the fact that we are so focused on hockey in Canada and not much else (especially at this time of the year) what Ryder has done is the start of something great, I hope. Personally, I’m glad it was the Giro d’Italia he won and not Le Tour. I love the Tour de France but for me the Giro is the harder race and the fact that it’s Canada’s first Grand Tour victory makes it that much sweeter. My spouse made a funny comment recently about a cycling jersey I own that has pink in it and I found myself defending the look of the jersey. I don’t know about anyone else but I think men look good in pink, just ask Giro d’Italia champ Ryder Hesjedal.

  2. paul

    In 3 of Wilcockson’s last 4 articles, he’s dropped names such as Hesjedal, Phinney and Wiggins, and recounted his personal experiences or stories of each. Glad to hear you met those stars before they were stars; I’m really impressed.

    And props to John for his incredible insight that Hesjedal was a “always star in the making” after his Giro run and Wiggo “always destined for greatness” after his early season stage race domination. No sh*t Sherlock?

    Some ideas for next Tuesday, John:
    - Merckx Always Had Great Potential in his Early Years
    - The Badger Would Never Back Down, Even in ’86
    - I Met and Interviewed Lance One Time in Boulder

    Let’s dial down the starstruck, post-facto raving and me-first storytelling thinly veiled as journalism. Your grandkids are probably sick of hearing it too.

  3. Christopher

    Thanks for highlighting Ryder’s career. As a fellow Canadian (and British Columbian) I too was a little teary-eyed while watching Ryder’s performance on stages 19 & 21. I can’t help but be proud of his incredible strength and his history-making victory. While hockey pervades Canadian media- all year long- it was nice to have a day or 2 of my favourite sport in the limelight. It has been all the more satisfying because Ryder is such a class act, humble and understated about his performance (how very Canadian).

  4. Brandall Binion

    Paul,
    You are an idiot. Wilcockson has been around the sport for decades. He has met these riders, and tons more alongside. If you dont like the site, just quit reading it… Or better yet, kick off your own article on someone else’s site but I rather doubt you have met anyone worth noting past the one or two pro riders we have all met at one time or another. That would be a short run.

    Just my .02$

    1. Padraig

      Brandall: While it’s always nice to hear from supportive readers, I hope in the future you can find a more constructive manner in which to disagree with another reader. We really do mean to keep it civil here.

  5. Eto

    I appreciate the brief history of a rider who has always been there working hard amongst the company of top competitors. I hope he has the chance to ride the tour this summer with the full support of his team.

  6. michael

    Great write-up! In the cycling mad province of Quebec, let me tell you that every cycling fan was riveted to their tv’s, ipads, laptops, cell phones and other media watching it live every morning.

    Watching sporting history being made by a fellow Canadian on the world stage is both awe-inspiring and a fitting conclusion to one of the more interesting editions of the Giro in recent years. The tactical battle on display was riveting, and watching Ryder grow in confidence as the days went by was something to behold.

    In honor of his achievment I went out on Monday and did some hill repeats for an hour or so. Puking my guts up on the side of the road, for some reason, felt like a fitting tribute after watching him pour it on in the mountains.

    @Paul, that is really the first time I have ever seen such a comment on this otherwise respectful site. Really a shame that you felt a need to de-base one the absolute finest cycling journalists on the planet of the last 50 odd years.

  7. LD

    Great background story John. As someone who grew up in the Vancouver area, your description of the stunning area surrounding Victoria is spot on. As a non hockey loving Canadian (although I LOVED the maple leaf mounted on the hockey stick) we grab our sports stars as we can get them…… Villeneuve in motor racing, Podborski in skiing and now Hesjedal for cycling (and Bauer)….. and they all exhibit a uniquely Canadian trait of being humble, determined, nice and quiet in their success. I for one hopes he doesn’t do the Tour…….. he won’t achieve what now everyone expects of him. Contador couldn’t do it either. But then again…… nobody expected Ryder to win the Giro.

  8. Adam

    I thought that for sure Canada would get the Stanley Cup back before it won a Grand Tour. In the midst of an almost 20 year drought, I’m at least a little pleasantly surprised to be wrong.

  9. Todd

    Great article. I grew up in the Victoria area, and it has been great to follow Ryder’s career. I waited to go for my Sunday ride until after Ryder had won!

    Small quibble: we don’t have much in the way of pine forest (small areas of shore pine on the west coast) on Vancouver Island. His data was probably cutting Douglas fir.

  10. WV Cycling

    Two questions:

    1.) I have heard stories of Ryder roaming around Canada (to Alaska?) for a while by bike, nearly looking like a vagrant. I can’t remember the details. Truth to this?

    2.) Vaughters sounded very iffy about Ryder in some past interviews. Something like ‘getting his act together’ or becoming more cohesive or whatnot. Am I imagining this or a lack of proper recollection?

  11. Geezah

    It was nice to stumble into this site and read some John Wilcockson (I remember reading your stories in Winning Magazine in the 80s- you wrote about Thurlow Rogers, Jean-Francois Bernard and others before they were stars/almost stars even back then). Your writing was very inspiring.

    It’s also nice and refreshing to read about Ryder’s victory from a more intelligent and informed source rather than the scrambling copy-paste style of many other journalists right now. They are trying to figure out who the heck this Hesjedal guy is…

    He’s been fighting for good top 20 and top 10 placings all over the place in smaller stage races since forever. Really consistent- it’s not like he’s coming out of nowhere. But seeing him cool as a swimming pool at the Giro and not talking nonsense to the press (like many other riders!) just makes him come across as more impressive.

    I hope he stays at this level, now that he’s raised his game.

  12. Brandall Binion

    Padraig, I understand and I do apologize. I came off a little rough and it really isnt in my character usually. I still bristle at the thought that the comment I was reacting too was decidedly ignorant of Mr. Wilcockson’s history as a writer but I have a feeling I am not alone in this. Thanks and I will do better next time.

    1. Padraig

      No worries. I just need to be consistent in applying our standards; I knew you’d get it.

      John has a particular bent and it doesn’t work for everyone. I don’t really care. He’s a great writer with more experience than any five journalists out there. And for that, we’re lucky to have him.

  13. armybikerider

    I thoroughly enjoyed the Giro this year and the performances of a host of riders were truly inspiring.

    Like WVCycling though, I remember Vaughters making comments about Hesjedal that were, umm, less that enthusiastic. Specifically, in the August 2009 issue of Cycle Sport America, in an article outlining the process of picking a TdF squad from the Garmin team, directeur sportif Vaughters wrote “….typically he (Hesjedal) is fond riding at the back, a bit scared to move into the real fight for position at the front.” Vaughters listed Hesjedal’s weakness as “rides at the back and has trouble staying at the front of the peloton – can’t be much of a team-mate at the back.”

    My question to John, how do these quotes square with the second sentence in the above piece? Has Hesjedal been misjudged in the past?…is he transforming as a rider and just now coming into his own?

    Thanks!

  14. LD

    @armybikerider…

    interesting thoughts. I can recall, recently in fact that my enthusiasm for Cadel Evans was about as lukewarm as my little sons’ bath last night. Everyone said he whined (well he does but…) wasn’t aggressive, didn’t attack, etc, etc. Then he wins the Worlds with a spectacular attack and has been attacking ever since.
    No doubt Ryder is super talented and hard working but I wonder how much of a riders success is dependent on a nurturing and supportive team director. Judging by the fact that it wasn’t until the night before the final stage that Vaughters got on a plane to go to Italy suggests, to me, that he really didn’t think Ryder had a chance to win the whole thing…….. despite what he said (lame at best). I think about guys like Riis for example and the amazing job he does in really supporting his riders and being a real figure of support, strength and guidance. Somehow, Ryder shifted gears in his thinking or his vintage was ready to be uncorked and he did what a lot of people thought he could do.

  15. Randall

    I appreciate Mr. Wilcockson’s history of Ryder’s career. I think there are many people in life who have had success delayed by life itself; events often categorized as unfortunate that can only be viewed as such from the perspective of great fortune. From my perspective, it’s nice to know that even amongst the lucky few that have the opportunity and the DNA, they still face challenges. It’s also nice to see someone overcome all these things and win big.

    It’s too easy to publish a blog and share your opinion, I think that “dropping names” is, in a way, the very thing that gives you the ability to credibly write.

  16. Jesus from Cancun

    I liked the article as most others. I am sorry that Paul didn’t, but I appreciate a little more knowledge on the riders on form.

    I was a bit surprised by a few interviews I read during the Giro. Ryder consistently said that he had no plan; he was taking a day by day attitude and was hoping that in the end he had the best result he could. Other riders were talking about aiming at the podium or a top 10, about trying to gain time here or defend there…

    I would normally think that if you have no specific goals you will end up at no specific place. But this time it worked amazingly well. Maybe Ryder was just shy or wanted to be discrete.

    I hope that there will be many more wins for Ryder. He seems to be a humble person who prefers to let his legs do the talk. I like to see winners like that, for a change.

  17. Sam J

    Isn’t the most obvious answer for why it took Ryder as long as it did for him to win a GT is that seven years is roughly the amount of time in the top level of the sport that it takes for a rider to begin competing for them? Other than some of the true greats (Merckx, Coppi, Bartali, etc.) as well as early bloomers with lucky circumstances (Fignon, Cunego) the vast majority of GT contenders enter the top level of the sport around 19-21, by 24-26 (five years) are capable of doing GT top 10s, and are capable of winning them by 26-28 (seven years). There are a million different factors that go into being able to compete for a title, and some of the most important, such as your body’s ability to handle three weeks of racing, not simply tactical but strategic experience, and confidence in your own ability to win such an imposing race, develop over the space of periods longer than just a few years, and wouldn’t be prepped at all by MTN biking experience. As such, wouldn’t Ryder’s development be considered no different from that of, say, Alberto Contador, except perhaps with the latter not having to deal with the uncertainty of riding for a top level team?

    That seven year development is not only cycling specific by the way, basketball being the first sport that also comes to mind, with players such as Jordan truly making the leap around then.

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