Giro winner Hesjedal swaps survival for success

Garmin-Barracuda’s Ryder Hesjedal of Canada takes a curve during the 30km (18 miles) time trial in the 21st and last stage of the Giro d’Italia cycling race in Milan, May 27, 2012. (REUTERS/Alessandro Garofalo)

By Alasdair Fotheringham

MILAN, May 27 (Reuters) – When new winner Ryder Hesjedal first rode the Giro d’Italia in 2005, he never saw his Discovery Channel team mate Paolo Savoldelli of Italy ride into Milan for his second overall victory.

Instead Hesjedal, then a second-year pro, crashed after five stages and struggled on for another nine days before abandoning.

“I pulled out the day he (Savoldelli) got the pink jersey,” Hesjedal once said.

“It was just a struggle every day…just survival.”

Fast forward seven years and Hesjedal’s 2012 Giro could not be a more different story as he claimed the pink jersey on the last day in Milan’s time trial to became Canada’s first Grand Tour winner.

Savoldelli was still there, too – but as a Giro race commentator for Italian TV on the back of a motorbike. For the last three weeks the now retired Italian has watched his former team mate slowly build towards his overall victory.

Hesjedal’s professional career on the road had begun in 2004 with Lance Armstrong’s U.S. Postal team, but that year the Canadian used road-racing almost purely as preparation for the mountain bike race in the 2004 Athens Olympics.

However, after a crash into a large rock hidden by a dense cloud of dust saw him lose all chance of victory in Athens, Hesjedal opted to focus on the road.

Hesjedal signed for Garmin, his current team, in 2008. A stand-out showing in the 2009 Tour de France team time trial and helping then team mate Bradley Wiggins ride to a British record-equaling fourth overall confirmed Hesjedal’s potential for three-week stage racing.

Victory in the Tour of Spain’s toughest single mountain stage the same year after 6,000 meters of climbing further increased Hesjedal’s confidence in his stage racing abilities and in 2010 he claimed seventh in the Tour de France, his best overall finish in a Grand Tour prior to his 2012 Giro triumph.

A ninth place finish in Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the ultra-hilly Belgian Classic, this April strongly suggested the man from Victoria would be in the frame for the Giro.

On stage seven he became Canada’s first Giro leader and the first rider from his country to head a Grand Tour since Steve Bauer in the Tour de France, 22 years previously.

A fortnight later, the quietly spoken 31-year-old – who loves hiking and who lives in Hawaii in the off-season – broke yet more glass ceilings when he became the first Canadian to finish in the top three of a major Tour, let alone win one.

Hesjedal’s victory is also the first Grand Tour podium finish for his Garmin team in their five-year history.

To achieve both in the Giro, where Hesjedal had such a rough debut to Grand Tour racing, can only increase his satisfaction.

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