The Walrus Blog

The Italian Job

Cyclist Ryder Hesjedal guts out a tremendous victory at the Giro d’Italia
RyderRyder Hesjedal hoists the Giro d’Italia winner’s trophy.

Before we delve into the specifics of the sporting fairytale that has unfolded over the past three weeks, we must get some housekeeping out of the way: Ryder Hesjedal’s Giro d’Italia triumph is the single greatest accomplishment by a Canadian athlete in the history of the country. This fact is manifestly inarguable. Paul Henderson’s series-winning goal against the hated Soviets in the 1972 Summit Series; Sydney Crosby’s gold medal–winning goal against the hated Americans in the 2010 Winter Olympics; Donovan Bailey’s world record–breaking 100-metre sprint in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics; Nancy “Tiger” Greene’s eight billion skiing medals: all indelible and vital parts of our national story. None come close to what Hesjedal — who I profiled for The Walrus last summer — has just pulled off in the Italian mountains.

Winning the Giro d’Italia, and in particular this year’s Giro d’Italia, should be physically impossible. That it is won, year after year, shouldn’t fool us into misunderstanding the event. Grand Tour racing — the Giro d’Italia, the Tour de France, and the Spanish Vuelta — is the ultimate test of what is possible from our species.

Judith Newman, in her New York Times review of Anne Enright’s Making Babies memoir, pointed out that bad sports writing is the equivalent of bad mommy blogging: “[F]ellows who don’t just document the mildew and peeling paint on a boxing gym’s walls but go on to liken it to the weeping of fetid tears over the tragedies they’ve seen.” I’m with you, Ms. Newman. But watching men in unitards tear through the streets of Milan at sixty kilometres per hour, I hear the metaphysical pealing of the church bells of my soul. (Which, considering we’re talking about Milan, may indeed be actual church bells.)

The Giro lasts three weeks. While luck plays a large role — crashes, illness, catastrophic saddle sores, etc. — the best man tends to win. And the best man is never a one-trick pony. It took Hesjedal ninety-one hours, thirty-six minutes and two seconds to cover the 3,502.1 kilometre route, and he did it in a variety of ways. He had to stay in the mix over the fast, flat stages. He had to excel at the individual time trials (one man wearing an alien helmet on a space-aged bike, racing against the clock), and he had to excel at the team time trial (seven men doing the same). Most importantly, he had to climb up mountains. Lots and lots of mountains.

The race’s penultimate stage — the first ever designed by fans, covering 219 kilometres from the Caldes-Valle de Sole to the Passo dello Stelvio — had the topographical profile of an alligator’s dental chart. The Passo dello Tomale and the Aprica would make for a bad day, but combined with the dreaded Mortirolo and the Passo dello Stelvio, the course was inhuman. At the beginning of this nightmare, Hesjedal sat sixteen seconds behind his main rival, Joaquin Rodriguez, the fine, fearless climbing dynamo from Spain. Hesjedal’s Team Garmin-Barracuda — and yes, cycling is very much a team sport — had played the entire three weeks with Bobby Fischer–like prescience. Nowhere in the pre-race literature was there any mention of Ryder Hesjedal. He wasn’t even a dark horse, which makes sense when you understand the fact that an Italian, or someone born near Italy, is always the Giro pre-race favourite. (This was the first Giro since the risorgimento in which an Italian did not finish on the podium.) And North Americans? That they are allowed to race is a tragedy locals equate with the incineration of Pompeii.

Unfortunately, the wonks hadn’t properly considered the career trajectory of the man Garmin-Barracuda had chosen as their GC, or “general classification” — the cyclist burdened with the task of winning it all. Like Cadel Evans, who won last year’s Tour de France, Hesjedal switched to road cycling after a successful mountain-biking career. From hero to zero: he started over as a domestique, a cycling Man Friday, for Lance Armstrong’s notoriously filthy US Postal Service, and then for the even filthier Phonak. These were the sport’s Dark Ages, when men with syringes dominated the standings. Hesjedal returned to North America to race in cycling’s version of the minor leagues, but as his veteran lieutenant Christian Vande Valde told me last year, “He kept his apartment in Spain. That took balls. He was always going to come back to Europe.”

The advent of Jonathan Vaughters’ Garmin team provided just such an opportunity. Vaughters, another of Armstrong’s disgruntled ex-teammates, wanted to build a squeaky clean outfit to compete in the Big Show. Hesjedal was one of his first hires, and in 2008, they hit the European circuit together. The following year, they made a statement in the Vuelta by winning a stage. Hesjedal’s breakout came a year later: an astonishing seventh overall in the 2010 Tour de France. He was all set for a great 2011, but early season illness and a crash in the Tour de France relegated him to riding in support of his teammates. He delivered sprinter Thor Hushovd a stage win, and worked like a Clydesdale for young Tom Danielson in the mountains. All told, there was nothing to suggest that Hesjedal couldn’t win a big win, but no real proof, either.

One of the Giro’s charming rituals is the daily publication of the “Bigs” — the contenders, the stars. Hesjedal never qualified for the honour. Not when he won the team time trial; not when he first pulled on the Maglia Rosa (the overall leader’s pink jersey) on stage four; and not when he stayed within stabbing distance of the leaders for the race’s duration. Conceding the Maglia Rosa meant that Garmin wasn’t defending the lead, but rather chasing it. The key was to stay within thirty seconds of Rodriguez, and to deliver the coup de grace during the final time trial, a discipline at which Hesjedal is far more adept.

So on Saturday, there he was on the grueling Mortirolo (the hardest mountain Armstrong claims he has ever ridden), emptying his soul to keep Rodriguez in sight. Followed, of course, by the merciless Passo dello Stelvio, the second-highest paved pass in the Alps, an endless tangle of hairpin turns. The battle ended with thirty-one seconds between them, and the Belgium Thomas De Gendt now in the mix after heroically taking the win, and pulling within two minutes of Rodriguez. After ninety-one hours of racing, Hesjedal needed half a minute to strangle out the win. The entire caper hinged on the time trial, only the second time in the Giro’s ninety-five-year history that the race would be decided on the final day.

Yesterday, Hesjedal rolled off the starting ramp and threw himself around the course like an unhinged boxer. He shaved seconds off his time by cutting every line so tight that he was never far from leaving a trail of skin on the Milanese asphalt. A lifetime of bike handling, all the skills he learned in the forest trails of Victoria, BC, and on the mountain passes of Europe, came to bear. It was an astonishing physical performance. He ripped the Maglia Rosa off Rodriguez’s back, winning the Giro by a slim sixteen seconds.

History made; another name etched on the tablets. But as a Canadian ex-mountain biker, there is no earthly reason that Hesjedal should have hoisted the Giro’s sacred trophy. Despite the legacy of outstanding cyclists like Alex Stieda, Steve Bauer, Mike Barry, and Svein Tuft (among others), Canadian cycling does not enjoy the same development programs that Europeans take for granted. It is a sport left to the Associated Press to cover, an afterthought. Floyd Landis was an American star before he cheated his way into winning the Tour de France; Hesjedal is only now getting his due.

That he was able to toil in the shadows comes down to a remarkable personality—an evenness of temper and an unshakeable focus that allowed him to improve in increments. Never brash, never flashy, he relies on fearsome hard work. In cycling’s clean era (and I wouldn’t bet my life on the fact that Hesjedal isn’t juicing, but given Garmin’s bio-passport program, I find it highly unlikely), an athlete can no longer rely on erythropoietin to give them an edge. It’s now down to talent and work ethic and sacrifice — and not the lying-down-in-front-of-a-puck sacrifice that CBC commentators tend to laud. The kind of sacrifice it takes to be the greatest athlete on earth. Which is the title Ryder Hesjedal earned the moment he pulled on the Maglia Rosa and sprayed champagne over a crowd of baffled Italians.

Hesjedal is thirty-one years old, which is prime vintage for a cyclist. The CBC called him a favourite for a Tour de France, but recovering from a Grand Tour win takes time. Now that Garmin, and the rest of the pro field, know what Hesjedal is capable of, he rides as a giant, and as a threat every time he gets on the bike. Should he rebound from this win the way he and his teammates believe he can, then we could one day be speaking of the 2012 Giro win as the beginning of the Hesjedal era.

For the meantime, Ryder Hesjedal of Victoria, BC is merely the greatest athlete in Canadian history. He’ll have to live with that until he knocks off another tour win or two, and joins the pantheon of the greatest cyclists of all time. Now that the Italians have learned to utter his name with awe, it’s time Canadians do too.

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