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Usually by this time of year, Ryder Hesjedal has already been knocking around the top-five of races such as Montepaschi Strade Bianche and the Vuelta al País Vasco. With the Ardennes classics opening Sunday at Amstel Gold Race, where Hesjedal rode to second in 2010, he is usually pedal-to-the-medal.
This year is different, as the Garmin-Barracuda rider takes aim for higher goals that come later this season. His immediate target and major new challenge for 2012 is a run at the overall at the Giro d’Italia.
So for next week’s Ardennes, Hesjedal isn’t sure what to expect. Rather than hitting peak form now, the Canadian all-rounder is hoping that will happen in the final week of the Giro when the race turns into the heart of the Dolomites.
VeloNews caught up with Hesjedal this week by phone from his home in Girona, Spain, to talk about the hilly classics, last year’s Tour and why he believes he can be in the mix in next month’s Giro.
VeloNews: Ryder, what are your sensations going into the Ardennes after a relatively quiet start to the 2012 season?
Ryder Hesjedal: I was pleased with where I was after Catalunya and I got through (Tour of the) Basque Country pretty good. It was only my second stage race in Europe and I need some racing to come up to a good level. I was bouncing in the front of the bunch in tough conditions against a tough field, so that’s a good sign that I am in good condition. You get it all up there in terms of weather. We got rain this year. That just makes the Basque Country that much harder of a race.
VN: So you’re coming into the spring a little quieter compared to other seasons?
RH: I started the season at Tour Down Under and took a little break. I didn’t start again until Catalunya. I have less race days than normal at this time of year. The Tour Down Under fit in nicely with my program and it was good to get down there to get some race days in the heat. This year, I have a bit of a reduced schedule in the spring to keep building for goals later in the season.
VN: What are your expectations for the Ardennes? You’ve had some great results, with second in 2010 at Amstel Gold Race. What do you expect?
RH: I have been trying to get in shape and be prepared. We have a really strong team shaping up, with our Dutch contingent both winning races last week at Sarthe, with (Thomas) Dekker and (Michel) Kreder. Dan Martin, he’s looking to show himself in the Ardennes, with his characteristics, he should do well. We have quite a few riders to take a shot at it. If we ride collectively, we can expect to come up with some results. Personally, I want to get through the races in a good way and build on them. If that means I am at the front, going for result, that’s even better. I haven’t had a March program to be in top shape for the Ardennes, but I am happy at the level I am now.
VN: Will you race all three races? Which one of them do you most like?
RH: I have always been drawn to Liège. It’s the big one. It’s at end of the week. I get better as the week goes on. My best result has been at Amstel Gold Race, so I have connection on that front. And Flèche, I have been at the front on the Mur. I like [how] the race unfolds. It’s one of the best weeks in cycling. It’s good to be there and be competitive. I will be looking at all of them to play my card and contribute.
VN: So you’re heading back to the Giro a third time, but this time you will go with a much different agenda…
RH: That was marked out early in our camp in November, that the team felt I could take a run at the GC and give me that chance. That’s been on my mind since then. My program’s been built around that since the beginning of the year. We are trying to build momentum going into the Giro.
VN: What are your expectations for the Giro?
RH: It’s a three-week race and I want to get there in the best possible shape and let’s just do our thing. I want to be at my best in the last half, in that final decisive week. And hopefully I can come out of it strong and it can set me up for July and the Tour. The last two years, I have just done the Tour, but in the past I have shown that I can respond well by doing two grand tours in one season. I hope to have a good Giro and use that for July.
VN: So are you thinking Giro or Tour?
RH: The Giro is the main goal for right now. I want to go there with GC ambitions. I am not thinking beyond the Giro. If things go well, it will only help me later on in the season.
VN: You’ve twice raced the Giro, do you believe it is a race that suits you?
RH: I love cycling in Italy in general. I have had a lot of great moments there. The passion and history for the sport is amazing and the Giro is very prestigious. I am excited to go there and try to be part of the race; that’s a huge goal. It’s something that I am looking forward to.
VN: Have you had a chance to scout the key stages at all?
RH: Not in person this year, no. It’s just the way the timing is and how the racing is going this spring, it’s not possible. Plus, a lot of the big passes are still covered in snow. Being in top shape is the most important thing. If the legs are there, the legs are there. And from my experience, halfway through a grand tour, all the climbs start looking the same. Also, we have Charlie Wegelius as a new sport director. He knows the race inside and out. He’s our man for Italy. He will have all the information we need. I will have the support from the team and I just need to be ready.
VN: So this is a big opportunity for you, a chance to ride as the top GC captain for the team. Are you embracing this challenge?
RH: It’s definitely getting exciting. It’s about taking the opportunities and using them in a positive way. There are only so many chances to ride for GC in a grand tour during your career. The team first suggested it. They felt it was a good race for me and it was time for me to take that challenge. I have embraced it. And to have the team put me forward like that, it’s a huge compliment.
VN: You’ve been in the top-10 before at the Tour, so are you aiming for more during this year’s Giro?
RH: Because I have done that, I know what it’s like to be there. I am confident in my ability as the race progresses. It’s all about being there in the third week. The Giro is always heavy in the last half and I know how I’ve been able to ride in the third week of the past several grand tours I’ve ridden. If I can carry that over and do that in the Giro, I feel like I should be up there in the mix. Having said that, anything can happen. In three weeks of racing, you have to have a lot of luck and have things go your way. I am confident and optimistic I can be up there, maybe even better than a top-10. In my mind if I can improve on where I have been, why not get closer to the top of the board?
VN: Looking ahead to the rest of the season, what do you have your radar screen? Tour, Olympics, Canadian races and then worlds?
RH: All the big races are on my radar screen. I am focusing on what’s right in front of me right now and taking advantage of what’s here now. I know if I can get through the Giro and Tour, I know I can be competitive at the Olympics. It’s only six days after the Tour. I have run at the front of the Clásica (San Sebastian) the past few years after coming out of the Tour. That’s something that shows my ability to handle the racing. Canada only has one spot. Am I worthy of that spot? Certainly. Will I go to represent Canada if they want me? Yes. It’s out of my hands, except doing what I need to do and make sure I am doing my job.
RH: And the worlds course this year is one that suits you. Will you come back for that?
RH: I am looking forward to the course at Limburg, because after the past few years of having courses for sprinters, it’s one that suits me well. The country around Amstel Gold Race is more suited for me. I am looking forward to that part of the season. And with Lombardia only a week after the worlds, that’s one race that I have been suited to and I haven’t had a crack at yet. That’s one reason why we structured my calendar the way we did. The team has given me a schedule that is more quiet in the spring than I have ever been. Once I get in the groove, I can maintain my form for a long time and race at a high level.
VN: Looking back at last year’s Tour, your personal ambitions were derailed, but the team had its best Tour ever. What was it like to win the team prize?
RH: We stood on the podium on the Champs-Élysées after a tremendous Tour. From day one to all the way to the end of the Tour, we rode our hearts out, and to stand on the podium as a team was huge. That was a hard last week. Christian (Vande Velde), Tom (Danielson) and I rode well in the final week in the mountains. It was a perfect bookend for that Tour and what we set out to do. To win the team time trial, then Tyler winning the sprint and Thor in the yellow jersey and winning those stages, it was a dream Tour.
VN: Looking at the big picture of your career and how far you’ve come, do you still believe you have room for improvement?
RH: I think there’s always room for improvement. Look at the countless number of guys who have their best years in their mid-30s. It’s a matter of being consistent, being there, staying [away] from the hiccups and setbacks. I have been able to train and race at a high level the past few years. 2010 had a lot of sparkles, maybe last year less so, but I was still there, day-in and day-out. This sport isn’t easy to sparkle all the time. You just need to stay in there and keep grinding away. Then you get into those scenarios when you can get those big results and people take notice. There is not a lot of difference between top-five and top-20, it’s just that you do not get noticed when you’re 18th. The level is just as high. I am very pleased at my level of consistency and being there for a complete season. I am looking forward to continuing that. The more I am there, the more chances I have to get those big results.
VN: The difference is small, and you’re not a rider like a sprinter who is going to be getting a lot of wins. Does it ever get frustrating to work so hard and sometimes not get the payback with results?
RH: Look at a classic. There are 260 kilometers where everything has to go right. The positioning, the staying out of trouble, the waste of energy, punctures. The level is so high, there are so many guys who are so close, the differences between winning and 20th are just so small. It’s getting tight to get those big results. This year has been kind of hard for me because I am coming into the season a little easier. My goals come later in the season, so I have had to be patient. Now I am getting into the time of year when I can start to compete.
VN: What motivates you more, the results or the process?
RH: I look at going out and performing. It’s not necessarily the results board that tells you when you have a good ride or not, or whether you contributed to help a teammate who had the skillset to win that day. If it was all about winning, I probably would have quit a long time ago. It’s about doing the work and being there, and being happy at the end of the day that you gave it a good shot. I would rather race the biggest and hardest races and try for victories in those than pick up wins here and there at lesser events. All wins are good, but when you race only in the top races the wins are not so easy to come by.
VN: You had the big season in 2010, when you had Canada’s best Tour result in 20 years; how did people react back home when you had some trouble during the Tour last year?
RH: I am very happy about last year. Things didn’t unfold my way for GC in the Tour last year, but everything else that happened in the Tour more than made up for it. With the time loss in stage 1 and I had the setback in stage 7, it was game-over for me in GC, but there was so much to rally around. Everything we did, it was just huge. And I tried for a stage win; I was close there and I helped Thor get a huge win in stage 16. Then to ride top-10 on both the Galibier and Alpe d’Huez, I was super pleased with the Tour. People were excited about it at home. After 2010, I was very pleased with my 2011 season, and I just want it to keep moving forward.