Up, up the snowy Passo Della Stelvio pumped Ryder Hesjedal on Saturday, leaving most of the field behind him, bringing his rocketing reputation as a professional cyclist along for the ride and heading for the top of his sport, where the stars hang out.
The collapse, thought to be inevitable by many of the Canadian’s rivals as he prepared for the toughest of the climbs in the closing days of the 2012 Giro d’Italia, turned out to be no more than whistling past the competitive graveyard.
And they tried to bury him, certainly.
Belgium’s Thomas De Gendt won the Saturday stage with an incredible run up the final climb, moving into fourth place overall. Pink jersey holder Joaquim Rodriguez, of Spain, knowing he had to put distance between him and his Canadian pursuer, could only pick up seconds because the B.C. biker just would not go away.
Hesjedal, 31 seconds back of the lead and heading to the Sunday time trial where he’s at his best, is now a star in the hugely difficult, too-often controversial world of professional cycling where for many years the winners were regularly determined by who had the best chemist.
After the sport worked hard to clean itself up, the field is now much more level, and new faces are coming to the fore.
The Victoria native, who makes his off-season home in Maui, is, barring catastrophe, going to be the first Canadian to finish on the podium in one of the three Grand Tour events — the Giro, the Vuelta a Espana, and the glorious Tour de France.
That puts him ahead of Steve Bauer, of St. Catharines, Ont., who rode in 11 Tours with a best finish of fourth in 1988. Bauer also wore the yellow jersey, as Tour race leader, for five days, and had it nine days in 1990.
But never a podium.
Who is Ryder Hesjedal?
Hesjedal, in Europe, is emerging as a top name and a favourite for the Tour de France. But he represents a country that, but for the big cycling fans, finds itself asking “Who is this guy?”
A few thoughts:
Ryder Hesjedal is a man whose last name is among the most often mispronounced in sports history. On television, they’ve given up and now say Hesh-DALL.
That’s wrong. Asked by the CBC a couple of years back, he gave us Hesh-JAH-dall, with an emphasis on the second syllable.
It’s not his style, apparently, to correct anyone.
Hesh-JAH-dall (keep practising) began his competitive career as a mountain biker, taking second in the 2003 under-23 world championships. He learned early the ups and downs of racing, and all the bumps and crashes that can come along the way.
Brushing by trees, avoiding sudden rocks also gave him experience that would come in handy when he switched to full-time professional road racing in 2005 — all those idiots along the route yelling in your face, running alongside, bobbing in front of your path while wearing wigs, face paint and sometimes nothing else.
Hesh-JAH-dall (almost there), started his pro career as all do, as a domestique, whose job is to help the team leader tactically and who almost never finishes high in the standings.
But when Garmin teammate Christian Vande Velde broke two ribs early in the 2010 Tour de France, the Canadian emerged on the scene, cycling all the way to a stunning sixth place.
Last year, a big crash in the early stages killed any chances of a top finish for Hesjedal, but he still rallied to win a stage and finish 18th overall.
Look of pain
He wears a constant look of pain on his face, from beginning to end. That should not be mistaken for someone not in superb shape, or mentally ready to go.
“Ryder, you can never tell with him because he’s a rider who gets his results through suffering,” says Jonathan Vaughters, in a television interview about 20 kliks from the end of Saturday’s 210-kilometre stage, one that included over 6,000 metres in climb (about 20,000 feet, or two-thirds of the way up Mt. Everest).
“He gets his power by doing a gut check every day. He’s looking good, [Saturday was] a long, long day and that suits him, because it’s about perseverance.”
Hesjedal is 31-years-old, and that puts him right in the middle of his peak years as a cyclist.
He’s considered one of the most “chill” riders on the pro tour. Nothing seems to bother him. His nickname within the team is Weight of a Nation, because he’s the only Canadian with a chance to win.
That’s not true, of course, because most of the nation is just meeting him and they haven’t climbed on yet.
There’s nothing in the big fella’s makeup (at 6-2, he’s a tree in a forest of bushes) that allows him to strut, and that’s perfect for Vaughters’ approach. The CEO sees Hesjedal’s success as a team success, “and he happened to be the guy the team projected forward to win the race.”
You could see that philosophy in Vande Velde, who in the final climb on Saturday up the Stelvio, ripped his own guts out pacing the pink jersey pack and helping his teammate Hesjedal (there, you got it) keep the Giro win in his sights.
And now stardom greets Ryder. And it seems to fit him well.