Hesjedal resumes march to Giro at Strade Bianche

Canada's only grand tour winner picks up his season at Saturday's race on Tuscany's gravel roads

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It’s been more than a month since Ryder Hesjedal kicked off his season at the Santos Tour Down Under (TDU) while admittedly riding for Cannondale-Garmin teammate Nathan Haas.

However, the young Australian Haas lacked the form that propelled him to fifth place last year and dropped out of contention after suffering a nasty spill in a crash-marred bunch sprint on stage 4. For Hesjedal, the TDU was merely a tune-up to test the legs and find some early-season form.

The last time the Victoria, British Columbia native rolled up to the start line in Adelaide at the TDU was in 2012, the same year the then 31-year-old went on to win the 95th edition of the Giro d’Italia to become Canada’s first — and only — grand tour winner just two years after finishing fifth at the 2010 Tour de France.

“Since the TDU, I’ve had some really good training based in Maui,” Hesjedal told VeloNews from his off-season home in Hawaii the day before making a quick trip to Canada mid-February en route to his European base in Girona, Spain. “I had a great feeling after TDU and used that momentum over the last three weeks to really get a solid base. I was able to get what I wanted done, so combined with that and the TDU, the last five weeks have been perfect.”

The three-time Olympian, 2001 under-23 world silver medalist (mountain bike), and two-time (2001, 2002) world mountain bike relay champion was immediately plagued by illness, injury and crashes following his historic Giro win.

After a lean 2013, Hesjedal returned to form last year by finishing in the top 10 at the Giro before picking up his second career stage win at the Vuelta a España. He also played a critical role in helping his Garmin teammates Andrew Talansky win the Critérium du Dauphiné and Daniel Martin win Il Lombardia.

“I was pretty happy with how my Giro went last year,” said Hesjedal, who finished ninth on general classification and second to eventual race winner Nairo Quintana (Movistar) on the brutal 139-kilometer stage 16 from Ponte di Legno to Val Martello.

“To me that was a successful race. Ninth at the Giro doesn’t sound quite as nice as winning the Giro, but we had a lot of shit go down, so I had to race it a different way and go on the attack, take chances, and almost won one of the hardest stages anyone has ever seen.

“Those are successes, and often times what cycling is all about.”

Now age 34 and riding for the newly formed Cannondale-Garmin squad, a result of the merger of Cannondale and Garmin-Sharp following the 2014 season, Hesjedal makes no secret of his desire to reclaim the maglia rosa.

“I really liked how the team raced in the [Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race] and was happy to see Nathan get a result for himself,” Hesjedal said of Haas’ third-place finish behind compatriot Simon Clarke (Orica-GreenEdge) and Belgian Gianni Meersman (Etixx-Quick-Step). “I felt like the results in the TDU didn’t tell the whole story of how well the team worked together.

“Moreno Moser looked like he was capable of winning with aggressive riding and the whole team pushed the race, so I know everyone left Australia with confidence. Plus, Davide Formolo looked great in Mallorca and I am looking forward to riding with those guys in Italy in March.”

Hesjedal’s march to the Giro begins with Strade Bianche on Saturday and the seven-day Tirreno-Adriatico that starts next Wednesday, with the Volta a Catalunya, Amstel Gold Race, La Flèche Wallonne, Liège–Bastogne–Liège, and Le Tour de Romandie all on deck.

“I gauge my early-season successes at the moment by helping my teammates, and come May I will ride for more personal goals,” said Hesjedal, who hinted at a possible Giro-Tour double back in January but did not elaborate further when questioned last week.

“For me, I don’t think anyone ever looked at me like a grand tour winner. Am I a very capable grand tour rider? Yes. Can he be in the front again? Yes. Do I want to win the Giro again? Yes. Do I want to find success at the Tour? Yes.

“The Giro is a very realistic goal,” Hesjedal concluded. “I’m doing the work I need to do and focusing on the early part of my season for now.”

Aaron S. Lee is a cycling and triathlon columnist for Eurosport and a guest contributor to VeloNews.

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