Ryder Hesjedal has already made Canadian cycling history by winning the Giro d’Italia. So what can he do for an encore at the Tour de France?
The 31-year-old from Victoria went into the Giro knowing it was well set up for him – there were tough climbs in the final week and Hesjedal is good when the going gets tough.
The Tour offers a different challenge.
“It’s not as ideal as the Giro was,” conceded Jonathan Vaughters, CEO of Slipstream Sports, which runs Hesjedal’s Team Garmin-Barracuda.
“It’s not as tailor-made, but at the same point of time we’ve got a little bit of a stronger team here at the Tour. We can play a few different cards. End of the day, the strongest rider always wins the Tour.
“It’s not as perfect as the Giro, but I still think he’s got a shot.”
Other contenders include defending champion Cadel Evans of Australia, Britain’s Bradley Wiggins, Vicenzo Nibali of Italy, Alberto Rui Costa of Portugal, and Steven Kruijswijk of the Netherlands, according to Vaughters.
“There’s plenty of competition,” he said.
Avoiding trouble early will be key for Hesjedal.
“The first week is a matter of not losing the race,” Vaughters told The Canadian Press on Friday. “You’re not going to gain much time one way or another, but you have to avoid crashes, you have to avoid big splits because of crosswinds, you have to avoid mechanical trouble, sickness, all those things.
“The race isn’t won in the first week but it can be lost in the first week without a doubt.”
The Tour, which cover nearly 3,500 kilometres, starts Saturday in the Belgian city of Liege with a 6.4-kilometre prologue. It ends July 22 in Paris on the Champs d’Elysees.
Garmin-Barracuda has switched up more than half its roster from the Giro to the Tour, but Hesjedal remains the team leader.
His teammates include Americans Tom Danielson, who finished ninth last year, and Christian Vande Velde, a two-time top-10 finisher. There are time trial experts David Zabriskie and Britain’s David Millar, sprinters Tyler Farrar of the U.S. and South African Robbie Hunter, plus Ireland’s Dan Martin, in his Tour debut, and 2010 Paris-Roubaix winner Johan Vansummeren of Belgium.
Rest has been the order of the day for Hesjedal since the Giro ended May 27, according to Vaughters.
“It’s real basic things: eating well, making sure you get enough sleep. Massage, physical therapy and all those things. He seems to be as fit as a fiddle. He seems very chipper and alert and ready to go.”
Hesjedal can also count on his physical durability and mental strength.
“Those have always been his two biggest attributes as a cyclist,” Vaughters said. “Psychologically he’s extremely strong and physiologically he’s very durable. He’s not always the most explosive rider out there, but the Giro d’Italia was a classic example of Steady Eddie wins the race.”
Hesjedal’s season had been shaped around the Giro, which he won by 16 seconds over Spanish rival to become the first Canadian to claim one of cycling’s three major tour races. He also became only the third non-Italian to win the Giro in the past 15 years.
His winning time over the 3,503.9-kilometre race was 91 hours 39 minutes two seconds.
“I think winning it outstripped our expectations but we always knew that Ryder could be one of the top guys in the Giro,” said Vaughters. “We’ll see how the momentum carries forward for the Tour de France.”
Hesjedal’s gutsy performance drew praise from Prime Minister Stephen Harper to Lance Armstrong.
It also earned him another shot as Garmin-Barracuda’s lead rider.
Hesjedal’s breakthrough year was 2010 when he finished seventh at the Tour de France, taking over Garmin’s lead role after injuries derailed some of his teammate’s chances.
Last year, his Tour charge was slowed by a painful crash on Stage 7.
Hesjedal, a former mountain biker, paced the peleton for long stretches as he secured position for other members of the then Garmin-Cervelo team, which finished first in the team standings. He finished 18th overall in his fourth straight Tour.
Hesjedal’s busy summer will continue just days after the Tour finishes, when he rides for Canada in the Olympic men’s time trial and road race in London.
Hesjedal, who will wear No. 61 during the Tour, is already garnering plenty of attention, however.
“It’s like we’re living in Canada here in the hotel,” Vaughters said with a laugh.
NOTES – The races starts with 198 riders spead over 22 teams and from 31 countries. The oldest rider is Jens Voight, who will be 40 years nine months and 13 days old at the start. The youngest is Thibaut Pinot at 22 years one month and one day. ... Steve Bauer was fourth in the 1988 Tour de France, when he became the first Canadian to wear the yellow jersey.