Canadian cyclist Ryder Hesjedal has been planning for the Giro d'Italia since November, with a pre-race schedule that mirrors that of 2012 when he won the famed Grand Tour event.
He has endured cold weather and even snow in the buildup, but says he is physically ready for Friday's start of the 99th Giro in Apeldoorn, Netherlands. At 154 pounds, the lanky six-foot-two Hesjedal is a little over two pounds lighter than usual and looking forward to the grind that awaits him.
Understandably the Giro is special to Hesjedal, the only Canadian to win one of cycling's three marquee Grand Tour events (the Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana are the other two).
This race could even more significant. Hesjedal says in recent weeks he has been thinking long and hard about his post-Giro schedule — and his future. In the past he talked of doing the Tour de France and the Rio Olympics this summer. Now, the 35-year-old is not ready to commit until he reviews matters after the Giro.
"If you really look at it, it could be my last Grand Tour," he told The Canadian Press from Geneva.
He does plan to compete in several other events this year including the Quebec City-Montreal Grand Prix races, the Tour of Alberta and his hometown race, Ryder Hesjedal's Tour of Victoria.
At this stage of his career, Hesjedal is choosing his battlefields although he proved again last year that he can make waves on the bike. He was fifth in the Giro, with a pair of second-place stage finishes. And he finished third on the gruelling Alpe d'Huez, the penultimate stage of the Tour de France despite having endured several days of stomach issues in the Alps.
Hesjedal will cover 3,463 kilometres over the 21-stage Giro that wraps up May 29. This year's race features three individual time trials, seven stages for sprinters, seven medium mountain stages and four high mountain stages.
Hesjedal, known for his endurance and ability to take advantage of the mountains while others falter, excels when the going gets tough in the back half of races. His laid-back exterior conceals a formidable competitive streak.
It's his first Grand Tour with the Trek—Segafredo team. He signed a one-year contract with the American outfit last August after his deal with Cannondale-Garmin expired. He had spent eight years with the Garmin group.
Hesjedal says he has enjoyed his new surroundings, and welcomes the talent around him.
Distinguished veteran Fabian Cancellara, in his last season, has his eye on winning the 9.8-kilometre prologue time trial Friday. That would give the 35-year-old Swiss, who has not raced the Giro since 2009, the only Grand Tour leader's jersey missing from his collection. Italian teammate Giacomo Nizzolo is coming off two sprint wins over Mark Cavendish at the Tour of Croatia.
Hesjedal can focus on stage wins and the general classification standings.
"We are coming to the Giro with big goals, but goals that we believe we have a very good chance of achieving," team director Adriano Baffi said in announcing the team. "Our early target is to go for a stage victory with Fabian and Giacomo. Giacomo deserves a victory, he has been second enough times, and Fabian will try and win the first-stage prologue and the dream to take home his first ever maglia rosa.
"We have opportunities in the Stage 9 time trial with Fabian and also Jack (Bobridge), the numerous sprint stages, and will fight to win the points jersey again. Of course, Ryder is aiming for the overall, and we strongly believe he can attain a top five and perhaps the podium if all goes well. We have a very strong team assembled and it will be a very exciting three weeks for us."
Hesjedal is one of three Canadians — and eight North Americans — in this year's race.
Svein Tuft is part of the Orica-GreenEdge team and will be making his fifth start. The 38-year-old from Langley, B.C., got to wear the leader's pink jersey in 2014 after helping win the team time trial.
Hugo Houle will be making his second start with Ag2r—La Mondiale. The 25 year-old from Sainte-Perpetue, Que., was 113th last year.
Ottawa's Michael Woods would have been a fourth Canadian but the 29-year-old from Ottawa broke his hand in three places in the Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the third of the Ardennes Classics one-day races in April. Woods had been having a fine debut season with the Cannondale Pro Cycling Team.
Hesjedal's wife Ashley, whom he calls his biggest supporter, will be along for the Giro ride.
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