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Canadian Olympian Clara Hughes (left) chats with teammates Joëlle Numainville and Denise Ramsden (right) before going out on a training ride in Horsley, Sussex, England on Wednesday July 25, 2012. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Canadian Olympian Clara Hughes (left) chats with teammates Joëlle Numainville and Denise Ramsden (right) before going out on a training ride in Horsley, Sussex, England on Wednesday July 25, 2012. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

London 2012

When a solo sport becomes a team game Add to ...

Canadian Ryder Hesjedal, the underdog winner of the Giro d’Italia, must envy the formidable Clara Hughes and the two others on the women’s road cycling squad.

The trio – 39-year-old Hughes and her younger colleagues Joelle Numainville and Denise Ramsden – are a team. Hesjedal is part of a team, too – he’s it. “I’m a one-man show,” he said Wednesday as he rolled into St. Pancras train station from France to prepare for one of the Olympic’s biggest events, the men’s road race, after taking a bad spill on July 6 that forced him out of the Tour de France.

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Since he was the lone Canadian to qualify for the road race, he will have nobody to work with on strategy and energy-saving drafting (riding in another cyclist’s slipstream) as 145 of the world’s best cyclists blast for 250 kilometres through London and the English countryside on Saturday.

In contrast, Canada’s women can work with one another in their distance event on Sunday to get the most out of their races. The Canadian national championship road race in Quebec last month is an example. Hughes and Ramsden stuck with one another even though they raced for rival teams. The duo broke from the pack in the last 30 kilometres, swapping the lead position every few minutes. In the last 100 metres or so, Ramsden broke free and crossed the finish line first. Hughes was second. (Numainville, who is on the same team as Ramsden, came third.)

Cycling competitors tend not to reveal what deals, if any, are made during the race to determine who is given the advantage. The point is that teams have the option of making competition easier for their best riders. Hesjedal will not have that advantage on Saturday.

So what’s his strategy? Pretty simple, really. He has to find other lonely riders like himself, or small groups of riders, and latch on. “I can ride off the other teams and find my own way,” he said. “The only situation that will be good for me is a small group.”

Ryder surprised the world when he won the Giro d’Italia last May, the first Canadian to do so. His victory was all the more surprising because he did not win a single stage of the race. Known as a climber, not a sprinter, he admits his chances of nailing gold in the Olympic road race are fairly small, all the more so given the rude strength of the British cyclists.

The Tour, which finished in Paris last Sunday, was a British sweep. Bradley Wiggins and his powerful teammate Chris Froome placed first and second, respectively. Mark Cavendish, the world’s top sprinter, won the final sprint along the Champs-Élysees with an astonishing burst of speed in the final two kilometres. He is favoured to win the Saturday road race, the London Games’ debut medal event.

“They’re going to take the initiative,” said Hesjedal, a former mountain biker who is competing in this third Olympics. “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.”

He knows he has a better chance in the time trial event on next Wenesday at Hampton Court Palace. In that race, there is no team effort and riders are not allowed to draft. They start individually and race against the clock.

Hughes, who is 39, has won Olympic medals for speed skating and cycling and is entering her sixth Olympics, has a plan, too. But no one on her team was willing to share its details at the women’s team press conference Wednesday at their lush country retreat in Surrey, about an hour south of London. Hughes said, “Cycling is a very team oriented sport. … We have a lot of cards to play.”

The three women will probably work with one another during some or much of the race. But who will make the break near the finish line is an open question. It could be that Hughes will hold back, all the better to conserve energy for the time trial event, where she is a stronger competitor. In that event last year, she placed first in the Pan American Games and fifth in the world championships.

In spite of Hesjedal’s solo status, Hughes’s age and the relative lack of experience of her two young colleagues, the Canadian road cyclists think their chances of nailing a medal are high, after scoring zip in Beijing. “I think we have a lot of cyclists capable of obtaining medals,” Hesjedal said.

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