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2012 Giro d'Italia winner Ryder Hesjedal, of Canada, looks on during a press conference in Naples, Italy, Thursday, May 2, 2013, two days before the start of this year's Giro. (Fabio Ferrari/AP)
2012 Giro d'Italia winner Ryder Hesjedal, of Canada, looks on during a press conference in Naples, Italy, Thursday, May 2, 2013, two days before the start of this year's Giro. (Fabio Ferrari/AP)

Giro d'Italia

Hesjedal takes back seat to Wiggins Add to ...

A year ago, Canada’s Ryder Hesjedal was at best the underdog in the Giro d’Italia. This year, his status has not changed much even though he is the defending champion.

That’s because the latest edition of the Giro, the world’s second biggest bike race after the Tour de France, has a glut of all-star champions, any of whom could send Hesjedal packing. And he knows it.

“Everyone here has proven themselves,” the native of Victoria said at a press conference in Naples on Thursday, two days before the start of the race by the Mediterranean. “That’ll make victory very special here.”

Indeed, the Fight for the Pink – the maglia rosa, the pink jersey – will be especially ferocious in 2013. Hesjedal’s main rivals include Bradley Wiggins, now Sir Bradley, winner of last year’s Tour de France and Olympic gold in the time-trial event. Shorn of his famous sideburns (which will surely make him even faster), Wiggins, not Hesjedal, is considered the man to beat at the Giro.

But Hesjedal, who is racing for the 10-rider Garmin-Sharp team, could surprise the field just as he surprised everyone last year, when he was not even considered one of the top 10 contenders.

He won the killer event – the Giro is considered more challenging than the Tour because it has seven mountain finishes – through a combination of steely determination, superb mountain-climbing ability and Zen-like calm when he was out of the saddle. That calm was apparent again on Thursday when he, unlike some of his rivals, seemed positively easygoing, even though the pressure on him to nail back-to-back wins is enormous. “I feel good,” he said. “I’m relaxed.”

While Hesjedal is not the Giro fave, he is highly respected by the world’s top bike racers. In an interview, Italy’s Michele Scarponi, winner of the 2011 Giro (he actually placed second, but was moved up after Alberto Contador was stripped of his title), said he thinks the Canadian might be able to pull off another victory. “He has great strength in his legs,” Scarponi said. “In the mountains, he is very strong. … I am afraid of both Wiggins and Hesjedal.”

Hesjedal, 32, is taking this year’s Giro especially seriously, contrary to rumours that he is more intent on winning the Tour than the Giro, for the simple reason that he has already won the Giro. “The Giro gave me a lot for my cycling career and my life and I definitely [want to] take that opportunity to come and try again,” he said. “I’m not thinking of the Tour de France right now.”

If anything, Hesjedal thinks he can up his game. He says he’s in better shape this year and has shed three kilos, taking his weight down to 68 kilos. That makes him a featherweight for a 6-foot-2 racer. When you’re climbing mountains for hours on end, legs and lungs bursting, the loss of three kilos can easily make the difference between victory and defeat over a 21-stage, 3,400-kilometre race. Remember, Hesjedal won the Giro by a mere 16 seconds. “I’m lighter this year and I feel better,” he said.

The other factor in his favour is experience. He has done the race, knows its inclines and curves, knows where he might launch his attacks and where he might hold back, even though the circuit follows a different course this year. Some of the top competitors did not have the chance to practise the Giro’s mountain runs because they were clogged with snow until recently.

What hasn’t changed is the mountains. They’re big and steep – the average incline of one run is a painful 12.2 per cent – and will punish all but the best climbers. “It’s loaded in the last week, that’s where the mountain stages are,” Hesjedal said. “That’s good for me.”

The Giro is a hot race this year not just because Wiggins is in the show.

The other biggies, besides Hesjedal and Scarponi, are Spain’s Samuel Sanchez, the 2008 Olympic road-race champion; Cadel Evans of Australia, winner of the 2011 Tour de France; Robert Gesink of the Netherlands, winner of the 2012 Tour of California and the 2010 Grand Prix Cycliste de Montréal; and Italian favourite Vincenzo Nibali, champion in 2010 of the Vuelta a España, the third biggest race in the European Grand Tour.

Wiggins seems more worried about Nibali than Hesjedal. At the Naples press conference, Wiggins said: “You’d say on paper and form that [Nibali is] the favourite and the one we’ve all got to beat, but you can never underestimate anyone in cycling.”

The Giro has been around since 1909 and spent most of its life as an Italian affair. In recent years, it has become more international, attracting bigger names. It is well liked by racers, biking journalists and fans because it is smaller, more intimate and less structured than the machine-like Tour. The Giro, like the Tour, has been battered with doping scandals, but there are high hopes that this year’s Giro will be a “clean” event.

Back-to-back Giro wins are rare. The last rider with two consecutive victories was Spain’s Miguel Indurain, in 1992 and 1993 (he also won the Tour five consecutive times).

Hesjedal wants to match Indurain’s record. He has little doubt that he can ride faster this year than last, because he is lighter, in superb shape and knows the course. But all that doesn’t mean he’ll land on the podium on May 26, when the race finishes in Brescia.

“I can perform and be better than in last year’s Giro and not win,” Hesjedal said. “You have great riders here. It’s definitely a strong field.”

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