It was a day that will live long in the memory for Canadian cycling fans. The day one of their own finally broke through and won a Grand Tour. The Giro d’Italia to be exact. As Hesjedal stood a top the podium in the middle of Milan, with his big trophy and the Canadian National Anthem bringing tears to his eyes, you get the feeling that the realisation of what he had accomplished was only just setting in. He had done it. He had proved doubters wrong and he had lived up this his teams ambitions and the so-called ‘weight of a nation’ to not only keep with, but beat his rivals in the mountains, and then seal the deal in the final stage time-trial in Milan.
Sunday may have been the day Ryder officially won the Giro by overcoming a 31sec time difference on general classification to beat Joaquim Rodriguez by just 16sec, but for me it was in the mountains on the two previous days where Hesjedal truly won the Giro. It was arguably the finest athletic performance and accomplishment by a Canadian sportsman ever.
Up there in the hills many believed Hesjedal would lose time to the better climbers. He would have to fight to maintain realistic contact and then hope to claw it back in the time-trial, they said. And by realistic contact they thought minutes. Instead on Friday, Hesjedal powered up the final climb leaving his biggest rivals in his wake, unable to maintain the speed or match the sheer power he was putting out.
A day later and the hills were even bigger, the tension even higher, and the margin for error even greater. Who would recover the most to inflict one last bit of mountain top damage? When Thomas De Gendt went off the front of the main GC group and built a lead of over five minutes with five kilometers remaining, it looked like the Belgian might come from nowhere and ride himself into Pink. De Gendt is strong against the clock so Hesjedal couldn’t hope to mark him like he could Rodriguez and then take ample time back the next day. So with road running out, the Canadian set out on the case — again much like Indurain might have done after Chiappucci in the early 90’s — and De Gendt’s time began to tumble. By the line Hesjedal had brought back a five minute deficit and maybe his chances of winning the Giro, to 3min 36sec. It was a monumental effort. Rodriguez who in Pink had done no work at all to save his own Giro, followed Hesjedal to the final kilometer before attacking and gaining 14sec. It meant the Giro was still in Hesjedal’s hands going into Milan but that he would need to summon the strength for one more effort.
De Gendt indeed proved to be an ample time trialist. He finished in a time of 34min 7sec — 8sec faster than Hesjedal — but nowhere near close enough thanks to Hesjedal’s chase up the final climb just twenty-four hours before. That’s where the Giro was won. By the first check point in the time-trial, Hesjedal had overhauled his 31sec gap and was virtual Maglia Rosa on the road. He continued hard to the line …. riding right on the limit to the point that he almost clipped the barrier on more than one occasion. His finishing time of 34min 15sec was surely good enough and eyes turned to Rodriguez still out on the track. The Spaniard rounded the final corner and the time required to win passed and a nation celebrated. Hesjedal had beaten him by 16sec — just 3sec more than the time he had taken out of Rodriguez on that climb on Friday. That’s also where the Giro was won.
Aside from this weekend there really was only one other time when the race looked to be in the balance. That’s how finely fought this Giro was. On Stage 14 Hesjedal took 26sec out of his rivals with a big effort to pull on the Pink jersey that he had lost earlier in the week, but a day later struggled and lost 39sec to Rodriguez including his race lead. That 13sec deficit which you could say was made up in total plus one second, on the Friday, again proved crucial.
Actually, had Rodriguez not proved to be quite the little opportunist over the first two weeks snatching a handful of time bonus’ on the finish lines, the margin of victory might have been greater still. Indeed, on raw time alone without subtracted time for the bonus’, Hesjedal would have won this Tour by 44sec.
De Gendt’s effort on Saturday and his strong time-trial seen him leap-frog Michele Scarponi to the final spot on the podium. Matteo Rabottini who only finished 60th overall won the King of the Mountain’s jersey, while Rodriguez pulled on the Red jersey as the Points leader — also won on those final mountain stages with his 3rd and 4th place finishes meaning he took it over Mark Cavendish by a single point — and so didn’t quite go home empty handed.
And there stood Hesjedal a top the podium. Anthem blasting. Champagne ready to be sprayed. And a nation ready to celebrate him. Back in his home country the news was spreading fast. It’s safe to say Cycling isn’t the big sport in Canada but the news was trending on Twitter and the evenings sports news carried the stories. The newspapers the next day had it as their headline items and the sports radio stations talked it up. It was fantastic to see. Some purists of the sport were critical that the main stream media was only jumping on-board now that he had won, “where were you when Ryder was on his way up,” they asked, but let’s face it, any smaller sport is going to have to produce a vocal point for the media to jump on it. That’s life and the publicity is nothing short of great for the sport. Besides, every stage of the Giro was live on television.
Now, can it be built on? Well the Tour de France is in July. It’ll be live on Canadian television, and then there’s the Olympics. Some will look for Hesjedal to continue this form at Le Tour, but that would be unfair given how hard it is to do the double in this cleaner more human era of the sport. But 2013 will bring about all sorts of expectations and with the main stream press finally sitting up and taking note, if you thought there was the ‘weight of a nation’ on Hesjedal in 2012, then you ain’t seen nothing yet. But don’t say “poor fella”, for he’s the kind that can comfortably handle it … despite how he may look on the way up a climb.