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Interview with Ryder Hesjedal — Spring Classics/Pre-Giro

by Amy Smolens

April 28, 2009 — Following Ryder Hesjedal’s (Garmin-Sliptream) fabulous 11th place finish this past weekend at the spring classic, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, we caught up with him for his impressions on his spring performances and his thoughts on the upcoming Giro d’Italia. The 2008 campaign saw Hesjedal make history, becoming the first Canadian to finish both the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France since the legendary Steve Bauer in 1987.

Not only did Hesjedal finish, but he raced strongly throughout both Grand Tours. In the Giro he helped power his Slipstream-Chipotle squad to an opening Team Time Trial victory after which Christian Vande Velde wore the coveted Maglia Rosa signifying the Giro’s overall leader. At July’s Tour de France he placed 13th in the final Time Trial (since recognized as 11th due to due to doping infractions), and rode onto the Champs-Elysées in Paris accompanying Vande Velde, the 5th place (now 4th for the same reason) finisher on GC. The 28-year-old Victoria native is looking to build on those experiences and even improve on them. After a successful and consistent spring campaign, that opportunity continues on May 9th, when the Giro d’Italia begins with a Team Time Trial in Lido di Venezia, the beautiful resort on the Adriatic Sea.

Thank goodness for Skype – two people can have an intercontinental conversation free of charge! Just after I got in from a bike ride of my own I heard the odd and familiar Skype ring. It was Ryder, calling right on time for our 10:30pm Girona, Spain/1:30 pm Pacific Time scheduled conversation. Luckily, we opted to go without the camera option, as I was looking pretty grungy.

Isn’t Skype great?
Ryder Hesjedal: I got ya, yeah, it’s good!

So I just wanted to talk to you a bit about how your spring has been going and look ahead toward the Giro.
RH: Yeah, sure!

In general, do you feel more comfortable with everything about your racing and your life in Europe this year?
RH: I don’t know, I was pretty comfortable in those respects, but I do feel a lot better at this point of the year. It’s more or less the same kind of schedule I’ve been going through, I think my results are better in the big picture than last year so I’m pretty excited to head into the Giro and the Tour and improve on those as well.

You were a protagonist again in Monte Paschi Eroica, and finished 10th for the second straight year. That seems like a unique race – describe that race and what you like about it.
RH: Based on last year, heading in with good legs and having a good race, I was just excited to get back there and kind of prove that it wasn’t a one-time thing. And it went well again and I felt good there – it just seems to be a race that’s suits me. Yeah, so two times at it, close to being in the right place for the victory”¦ I’m definitely keen to get back there again and try. But you never know how the calendar unfolds and it was nice to get back to it again this year and do well.

There are dirt and gravel roads – does it bring you back to your days as a mountain bike racer?
RH: Yeah, I mean it’s more than just being able to handle yourself on gravel roads on a road bike, which is something I was always doing while riding and training. It’s also the layout of the course, the way the climbing and the sections are designed, it just seems to suit me. And at the time of the year, I’ve shown that I can be strong in March with Eroica, Tirreno-Adriatico and then even Milan-San Remo this year. So it’s a good spot on the calendar for me.

At Tirreno-Adriatico you finished 7th on toughest stage to Montelupone… a climb with a 21% gradient – how tough was that stage and the other climbing stages?
RH: It’s pretty hard – you know it’s gonna hurt there but it’s pretty straightforward. Actually the penultimate day in Tirreno was much harder with respect to the actual distance and severity of the course. We did 5,200 meters of climbing, that’s 17,000 feet on that stage, it was over 6-1/2 hours, so that was a real day, comparable to any one-day classic and any stage you’d see at a Grand Tour. So to get that under the belt by the end of Tirreno was really good. I was 11th on that stage, coming in with all the chasers. There were only four guys away that day that decided the tour. I was pretty happy with that stage, even more than the Montelupone stage.

You were 8th on GC, so in the top 10 for the second year in a row, surrounded by guys like Ivan Basso and Robert Gesink – what does that tell you about how well you’re riding and where you stand as a climber and a GC rider?
RH: Yeah, that was nice just to confirm what I’d done there last year as well. I don’t know what the odds are about getting 10th and 8th in those races two years in a row (laughs) but that’s how it panned out. But at Tirreno along with Paris-Nice, people are definitely trying to do well so for me to continue to get results at that stage is always reassuring moving forward through the season. And I think it’s gone well again, I was able to ride strong right through Milan-San Remo in March, and then kind of take a break and build up again for the Ardennes and Pays-Basque (Vuelta al País Vasco,) so the season’s moving along nicely.

In Fl̬che Wallonne you finished 25th, 34 seconds behind the winner, Davide Rebellin Рare happy about that result in a race like that?
RH: I was definitely hoping for a little bit better. I mean the main objective was to get to the final. You know last year I didn’t have the chance to contend at the end there with a puncture inside 900 meters at the base of the (Mur de) Huy so I had a little bit of unfinished business. I was able to get to the final in good position with the help of the team but I didn’t have super legs to get up that climb. It’s a real explosive effort and I just didn’t quite have the energy or power left in the legs to follow those guys so I just had to ride steady and ride up it the best I could. So 25th, yeah the time back is not very far but I was definitely hoping to at least surge up maybe halfway with the front-runners and watch the guys make their attacks at the end but I was just a bit behind.

You spend a lot of time, especially in the Grand Tours, working for riders like Christian Vande Velde. What’s it like being the protected rider for Garmin-Slipstream and having teammates sacrifice and work for you?
RH: It’s still kind of”¦(laughs) I think it’s just a natural progression as a professional cyclist. You know, the way it works is you show up for a race with X guys and the team dictates — they know who has the most experience, who’s done what in these races and if you’re fortunate enough to be the top guy on your team and then you’re able to get the support through the team to meet the objectives of getting the best result possible. I mean that’s a nice position to be in. So I’ve been very fortunate and happy to be in that position at some top races. I’m just trying to take advantage of that and fill that role and when it’s my turn I think it’s gone pretty well so far.

And 11th at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, that has to be a satisfying result.
RH: Yeah, that was an epic day. I mean I’ve definitely done other races more times than I’ve done Liège. But I know the race from the few times that I’ve done it and a lot of the guys said they’d never seen a bunch like that come to the line – just the way the first group and the chase came back together on the (Côte de Saint-) Nicolas (with 7km to the finish). I just really wanted to take advantage of that and I was in the final going into Ans (the actual finish town). I was still with everybody and did the best I could in the sprint, and was right behind the Olympic champion (Samuel Sánchez) for 11th. So I can’t be too disappointed with that day, just to have legs to be in the final after the climbs like the (Côte de la Roche aux) Faucons and the Nicolas and all the selections even before that, I mean, I’m pretty excited. You know, I definitely improved through the week of the Ardennes, which is a good indicator for things ahead and that’s where I wanted to be headed into the Giro.

After your results at Flèche and Liège, have your goals changed?
RH: No, nothing’s really changed. I wanted to be better in the Ardennes than last year, and I felt good there. I didn’t do those races with Phonak, I stopped with Roubaix, focused more on the Northern Classics and only experienced the Ardennes with Postal and Discovery so when I got back to them last year I definitely felt good and even making it to the finals of Amstel and Liège that’s no small feat. So when I was able to do that my first go-around again at those races after a few years that just gave me a lot of confidence. I wanted to visit those races again this year and had high expectations for myself. For the first time I was also able to do Pays-Basque before the Ardennes. I hadn’t done Pays-Basque before and I just really wanted to use that race and look at the big riders that excel in the Ardennes. A lot of the guys use Pays-Basque and that’s a perfect preparation. So I’m pretty pleased that I was able to use Pays-Basque in a training sort of way and come out of the Ardennes with good performances, that was the whole plan and it’s gone well. Now the course stays the same for the Giro. We have to defend the Team Time Trial victory (from last year) and try and hang onto the Maglia Rosa as long as possible and then go from there.

How and where will you prepare for the Giro? Do you have a special training camp again?
RH: Yup, we start here in Girona on Friday and continue on Saturday and Sunday. We’ll do specific Team Time Trial training, get our strategy planned, and work together with the guys that are going to be there. And it comes pretty quick, I think we leave next Wednesday for Italy. The whole point of this weekend is to put it all together and to put the best possible 9 guys on the plane next Wednesday. So racing Liege yesterday, recovering, doing a little bit of training and getting going again comes pretty quick!

How different will it be this year with Christian having worn pink before? You guys won’t be able to sneak up on anyone this time like you may have done last year.
RH: Yeah, but I don’t know if you really sneak up on anyone in the opening TTT. It’s pretty straightforward — everyone puts in their best effort and whoever’s fastest at the end, that’s it. I think we’re clearly going to be looked at as one of the favourites, or the favourite — that’s the way it goes. It’s a good position to be in and we’re definitely approaching it with that mindset.

Having the success you had at last year’s Giro must give you a huge amount of confidence going into this year’s race?
RH: Yeah, I think the team’s confident no matter what, especially in the Time Trial discipline, when you see the team we’ve put together for this Giro – it’ll be pretty amazing. We’re going to be focusing on that event and then going to the Giro in the best possible way. I mean the big goal is still the Tour de France with Christian, and we’ll always have that in the back of our mind and that’s going to be my main objective, to be the best I can be in July for Christian.

With the way you’ve been racing this spring, do you feel like you’re just where you want to be for the Giro?
RH: Oh yeah, I want to be performing in the Giro. It’s a perfect time of the year to be at a high level. Doing the Giro before the Tour there’s the perfect amount of time to put in a big effort and use that effort to progress and then recover and then go into the Tour. Just the fact that that’s what I did last year, mentally it’s pretty easy to wrap your head around the whole concept. And I know I’m improving constantly and I am excited about the Giro, based especially on this last week, but even on what I’ve been doing since December.

What about Christian’s form and preparation? Is he where he wants to be and where the team wants him to be as well?
RH: Yeah, I think so. When you’re truly focused on say the Tour de France, and when you have performed like he did last year, it’s hard for a rider to kind of put the brakes on and not do a lot in the winter months to be the absolute best you should be in July. So he’s kind of taken that mentality and maybe had a bit of a slower start this year, but already with great performances and periods through that slow start. I think he’s very pleased with where he’s at right now, especially Pays-Basque, he was performing well there, almost winning a stage. Also winning a stage in Paris-Nice, I mean those are great indicators, so I think he’s pretty excited for the Giro again and using that as his last stepping stone for July.

There’s a 9-hour time difference between Girona and BC, have you been able to follow the NHL playoffs at all?
RH: Oh noooooo!! Cody (Graham of Media One) was telling me there’s been “Canuck Fever” but I haven’t even had any time to process the whole thing!

They swept the Blues in the first round and are just waiting to see who they’ll play next. They’ve had a lot of time off. (note: the night after we spoke it was announced that the Canucks will face off against the Chicago Blackhawks).
RH: Well, that’s good to hear.

Good luck at the Giro! We hope to catch up with you there to see how things are going.
RH: Cool, thanks!

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