If he were inclined that way, Ryder Hesjedal could go into the two races in his home country with a large measure of swagger.
But the Victoria rider was already among the perennial favourites at Grand Prix Cycliste events in Quebec City and Montreal before he won the Giro d’Italia in May, becoming the first Canadian ever to win one of Europe’s Grand Tours (the tours of France, Italy and Spain).
The 201.6-kilometre Quebec City race goes Friday through the hilly streets of the Old Town, while the steeper 205.7-km event up and down Mount Royal in Montreal is set for Sunday.
They are key tune-ups for the world championships Sept. 15-23 in Limburg, Netherlands.
The 31-year-old Hesjedal made his breakthrough when he finished seventh at the 2010 Tour de France, and topped that by beating most of the world’s best at this year’s Giro, snatching the Italian title with a win on the final-day time trial in Milan.
“It doesn’t change what I’m doing,” Hesjedal said this week. “Winning the Giro is a high, but I’m looking to see what I can do in years to come, and it starts here and in Montreal.”
But he added: “I’m still Giro d’Italia champion. It’s good every day.”
The Quebec City and Montreal events, now in their third year, are the only races on the UCI World Tour held in North America. Most of the top riders not currently involved in the Spanish Vuelta, will be at the starting line Friday morning.
The race weekend warmed up with a sprint exhibition up and down the city’s scenic Grand Allee on Thursday, with Zach Bell of Watson Lake, Yukon and the Spidertech team nipping Aussie Matthew Goss at the finish line in the final.
Hesjedal leads Garmin-Sharp, one of 21 eight-man teams that include Canadian Steve Bauer’s Spidertech squad. There is also a Canadian national team that will compete in Quebec City but not Montreal.
Other favourites are Frenchman Thomas Voeckler, the 2010 Quebec City champion for Team Europcar, and Slovak Peter Sagan of Liquigas, who took three stages at this year’s Tour de France. Edvald Hagen Boasson of Norway was second to Voeckler two years ago and is a threat to win for Sky-Procycling.
Spaniard Luis Sanchez of Radobank and 2011 Montreal winner Rui Da Costa of Movistar can also make waves.
But among the missing are Belgian star Philippe Gilbert, who won in Quebec City and was third in Montreal last year, and Dutchman Robert Gesink, who was second in Quebec.
Two other big names, Cadel Evans and Andy Schleck, withdrew with injuries.
Hesjedal, whose best was third place in Montreal in 2010, said it is tough to predict who will win either race.
“The last two years, each race has unfolded in different ways,” he said. “It’s not like a classic that’s been around for 80 years.
“These races are exciting because they’re unpredictable.”
After winning the Giro, Hesjedal had high hopes at the Tour de France, and he was in eighth place when he got tangled in one of the mass crashes that marred the early stages of the three-week event. He was forced to withdraw with leg and hip injuries.
He was Canada’s lone rider in the road race at the London Olympics, where many top cycling countries had five-man teams. It was no surprise he finished 62nd.
Hesjedal has not raced since then, opting for a rare mid-season break to heal up.
“It was good to get home and see family and friends and take a little break,” he said. “But not from training. I was on the bike the whole time.”
Hesjedal is 13th in UCI World Tour rankings, which are led by Briton Bradley Wiggins. Sagan is ranked 5th and Boasson Hagen is 11th.