His career was nearly over before it started. As a young teen whose world revolved around a nine-speed Norco Bush Pilot, Ryder Hesjedal arrived at his first mountain bike race an hour north of the family's Victoria home looking conspicuously out of place in blue-jeans and a ratty T-shirt. The outsider feeling deepened when his dad noticed an absence of competition and approached an organizer to ask where all the other kids were.
"He looked at me funny," recalls the proud father, Leonard, on the day his 29-year-old son finished seventh in the Tour de France, "and he said 'What are you talking about, the race already started. All the other kids are two minutes up the trail.' So I run over to over to Ryder and yell 'go, go, go, you're way behind.'"
The kid in denim would finish second.
It was the ignominious but promising start to an unorthodox cycling career that - thanks to three grinding weeks in France - will enter the annals as one of Canada's greatest, the best Tour finish for a Canadian since 1988. Among friends and family, the French triumph was no surprise for the adversity-plagued racer who's adhered to a strict training regimen since he was 14 and often chafed Canadian cycling authorities for his single-minded resolve to succeed on his own terms. "He has always refused cookie-cutter thinking," says Juerg Feldmann, an eccentric Swiss-born fitness expert who's trained Hesjedal using one-of-a-kind techniques since he was 14. "The Canadian Cycling Association did not always like our methods. They got in his way on a few occasions. But he made his way up in spite of that."
Those strange methods began shortly after that first race, when it became clear the youngster's thoroughbred genes needed little honing to reach their full potential.
A Victoria bike enthusiast named Dave Smith took the teen under his wing, introducing him to Feldmann, a recent Swiss immigrant who'd once coached the largest track-and-field club in Switzerland.
At age 15 - one year after he was just another kid bouncing over Douglas Fir roots in the woods surrounding his parents' Vancouver Island home - Hesjedal was officially a prodigy, placing fifth overall in the B.C. Cup against riders three years older.
It put an end to his other athletic ambitions. His father says that while he was "terrible, choppy" skater, he dropped quarterbacks "like sacks of potatoes" and possessed a fastball that tore the pocket out of two back-catcher's mitts.
His early mountain biking rise was not without controversy. One of his trainer's techniques involved taking mid-race blood tests using a thumb-pricking device similar to that used by diabetes patients.
"Rumours started up that we were doing illegal stuff," Feldmann says. "The CCA [Canadian Cycling Association]was very suspicious and tried to stop us. But Ryder persisted."
While other trainers relied low-tech measurements, Feldmann used a credit-card sized computer originally designed for heart-and-stroke patients that recorded blood entering and exiting the heart, lactic acid buildup, lung capacity and other detailed readings from the heart, lungs and muscles.
At 16, Feldmann measured Hesjedal's lung size at 4.6 litres, just under twice the size of the average human. By age 18, it stood at 5.2 litres. As of recent months, he's grown lungs the size of large milk jugs - an astounding 8.2 litres in volume - that can process 250 litres of air a minute compared to 80 litres for the average male.
"To me, the heart, lungs and muscles work as a team," says Feldmann from his home in Quesnel, B.C. "If we can see a weakness in that team, that is what we work on. It's a very different approach."
It clearly worked. He eventually hoisted multiple mountain biking world-championship medals and landed a contract with one of the world's top pro team. But after finishing second in the 2003 world championships to a rider who was later nabbed for doping, he became disillusioned with the sport and turned to road racing.
It was a bumpy start. He started with the Discovery team, alongside Lance Armstrong, a man with whom he had little in common. "Ryder is the opposite of a guy like Lance," says friend Sarah McGrath. "He's a really quiet, shy, reserved guy who's very giving. Even with his schedule he was back here for kids charity ride in May."
He moved from Discovery to Phonak, which ran into several doping controversies, including the positive test of team leader Floyd Landis, that led to its demise.
Even though Hesjedal managed to keep his own name clean, he was out of a job.
"All I wanted to do was get home and be with my friends and family," he told Canadian Cycling Magazine earlier this year. "That was a hard part of the sport, which is very real."
He began riding smaller North American races. But solid performances and the machine-like physiology crafted by Feldmann eventually caught the eye of Jonathan Vaughters, manager of the Garmin-Transitions cycling team.
"I could see he was immensely strong," said the man who would eventually hire the 6-foot-2 Canadian, mainly to assist the team's lead rider, Christian Vande Velde.
"He doesn't get injured, he doesn't get sick, he doesn't quit. He's a bulldozer, not your typical delicate athlete. When we tested him, he was one of the strongest riders. It was just a matter of him getting confident."
When Vande Velde was injured earlier in this year's Tour, the Canuck saw his chance.
"I can't say I anticipated this," said Vande Velde from Paris, where Hesjedal was busy being feted by sponsors and teammates wearing t-shirts bearing the slogan Ryder: Weight of a Nation. "We always knew he had the ability, it was just a matter of him getting the confidence. By giving him a little more support next year, I'm pretty excited at his prospects."Report Typo/Error