Ryder Hesjedal arrived at the Olympics to a crowd Wednesday. But the Giro d’Italia winner will largely be on his own Saturday in the men’s road race.
While world champion Mark (The Manx Missile) Cavendish can rely on the help of four British teammates, the 31-year-old from Victoria will be going it alone because Canada did not collect enough points to qualify any other riders.
But the focus was on Hesjedal on Wednesday as he walked into a Canadian media crush at St. Pancras International after getting off a train from Europe.
Wearing plaid shorts, colourful runners, a Canada jacket and red sunglasses, the 6-foot-2, 159-pound Hesjedal arrived wheeling one of his own Cervelo bikes, neatly packaged in a giant canvas bag. His other rides had been shipped ahead of time.
The laid-back Hesjedal, under the spotlight at his third Olympics, did his best to take all the attention in stride.
“It’s exciting. This is a little overwhelming,” said the former mountain biker. “But I’ve been training and focusing on this event. We’ll see how I do Saturday and following in the time trial.”
Hesjedal had fellow Canadians Michael Barry and Svein Tuft on his side at the 2008 Games road race in Beijing, where Barry was eighth, Hesjedal 55th and Tuft 58th. But he will have to look to others to help him this time.
This time he is, in his words, “a one-man show.” A good scenario for him is being part of a small group that breaks away from the field early.
“I can ride with a small group and there won’t be many guys with teammates at that point,” he said.
But if the peleton catches that breakway group, the race will likely come down to a contest among sprinters like Cavendish. The British sprinter won a shorter test event last summer and has the advantage of a British team that features Sky teammates Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome.
Wiggins and Froome went 1-2 in the Tour de France but Wiggins was not averse to helping play leadup man for Cavendish, who can be as sharp with his tongue as he is fast on his bike.
“What type of scumbag would put tacks on the road in front of the worlds biggest bike race?!,” he tweeted during the Tour. “1 guy’s crashed out with a broken collarbone now.”
Cavendish and Wiggins were teammates at the 2008 Games, competing in the Madison on the cycling track. They came a disappointing ninth.
The men’s road race is a glamour event and one of the first medals of the Games. Plus it comes on the heels of Wiggins’ Tour win.
The hope is the Brits can extend the cycling love-in into the Games.
“They’ve clearly shown how strong they are,” Hesjedal said. “They’re going to take the initiative, they’re going to control the race. So it will be everyone against them if they take that stance and we’ll see what happens.”
Some 145 men will contest the 250-kilometre course, which features nine laps of a circuit that includes Box Hill in Surrey. The race, expected to last six hours, will start and finish on The Mall in central London.
Hesjedal, who gets to see the course Thursday during a closed practice, acknowledges that an elite field will be hard to beat.
“It’s difficult to come up with a medal, certainly in the road race ... It comes down to many moments and things have to go right. I’ll do the best I can. And in the time trial, there’s definitely a lot of specialists that have shown themselves in a top-three capacity. I’m going to do my best an see what happens.
“But I think we’re definitely be bringing home some medals as a whole in cycling.”
Hesjedal crashed out of the Tour de France on July 6, one of at least two dozen riders caught up in a nasty crash with 26 kilometres left in the sixth stage.
The Canadian suffered road rash to his hip, knee and ankle. But the real damage came when, upon impact, his leg slammed into another rider’s bike.
A bloody Hesjedal, who started the day in ninth place, picked himself and finished the ride in 108th place overall.
After a travel day to return home to Spain, he was back on the bike the next day and has been building up ever since.
He spent the last few days riding in Belgium after rejoining his Garmin-Sharp team in Paris on Sunday for the finale of the Tour.
“I feel good. I’ve training good since before then in Spain,” he said. “I’ve been training my ass off so we’ll see how it goes.”
Despite the recent crash, he arrives on a wave of confidence thanks to the Giro win and a controlled pre-crash ride in the Tour that was to set him moving up the ladder later in the race.
And he is grateful that his injury allowed him to continue training while getting therapy.
“I’m healthy and I get to represent Canada at the Olympics,” he said. “It’s all good.
“It was hard to leave the Tour but if there was ever a year — winning the Giro and getting to come to the Olympics, it’s all right.”
He has been training on familiar ground in Spain and knows how his body responds to the roads around Girona. He says all measurement tools point to him riding well.
“I was in top form in the Tour and I don’t think I lost any of that condition. I just had to stop racing to not further the injury. I was able to get the recovery properly, control my training and kind of prolong that form.
“I’m even more optimistic in my ability to perform in these one-day events.”
With success comes expectations — too much so in some quarters. Hesjedal was asked Wednesday by one reporter if he considered himself a favourite at the Games.
The lanky Canadian seemed aghast at the question, given the elite Olympic field and the fact anything can happen in a one-day race, but answered diplomatically.
“I wouldn’t say I’m a favourite,” he said. “There’s definitely a lot of guys that have that billing.”
Hesjedal finished 16th in the 2008 individual time trial. in 2004, he did not finish the men’s cross-country mountain biking event.
Hesjedal will join Clara Hughes and other Canadian cyclists at their historic hotel outside London which features a Victorian mansion built in 1828 complete with ornate classical chapel.