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by Shane Stokes
October 24, 2016
Photography by Shane Stokes, RCS Sport, Cor Vos
Ryder Hesjedal exits his apartment beside Girona’s Onyar river, walks a few metres and props his bike close to the outdoor tables of the Duran café. It’s been his local for many years and he is on first-name terms with the staff.
Coffee ordered and recorder on, he sits and begins a 40-minute chat looking over many aspects of an 18-year career, including highlights, low points and the reasons why he’s now walking away.
Hesjedal is decked out in Trek-Segafredo team kit and will clock up more kilometres after the interview, but his time competing is done: these last spins are about winding the body down, easing the aches out of jaded muscles and bidding farewell to Girona, his European home.
“I first came here in 2004,” he tells CyclingTips, sipping his coffee and shivering slightly in the autumn shadows. “I’ve never been here all year round. I always go back to Canada and Hawaii for the off-season. But it’s been a good run here. It is a beautiful and great city.
“I enjoyed my time here very much and I will probably miss it.”
Hesjedal is just 35 years of age. Compared to other big names who have stretched their careers until beyond their 40s, riders such as former pro Jens Voigt and the still-competing Chris Horner, he should still have more racing years left in the tank.
But he’s sure it’s the correct moment to stop.
“It’s just the feeling. It just felt like the right time,” he explains. “I have been thinking about it here and there. I think that [pondering] is normal for anyone who has been riding for a decent period of time. It just became clear halfway through this year that I was ready to move on and call it. That is what I did, and here we are.”
Where we are is sitting on Girona’s Rambla de la Llibertat on a sunny autumn day. But we are also at the end of a long career, looking back through time at the standout moments. In terms of results, there are clear peaks: the most famous, of course, is victory in the 2012 Giro d’Italia. But there are also his Vuelta a España stage wins in 2009 and 2014.
Add to those his fifth place overall in the 2010 Tour, a placing equalled again in the 2015 Giro. There’s second in the 2010 Amstel Gold Race. Third in the GP Cycliste de Montreal the same year, as well as fourth in the GP Cycliste de Québec. And don’t forget top ten placings in a host of other races, including the Volta a Catalunya, the Tour of California, Il Lombardia and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Hesjedal also achieved on the mountainbike, take silver medals in the junior, under 23 and senior worlds.
Talk about standouts, though, and one shines clearly for him.
“It’s pretty easy,” he says. “The Giro. If you look at how hard the sport is, that is the peak, that is the pinnacle. To win a Grand Tour … that is it.
“That is the highlight, for sure.
“But there have been a lot of moments around that that were important. Maybe not victories, but they were important steps. I think coming back to Europe in 2008 after a year in North America [with Healthnet-Maxxis – ed.] was a big point. I went back to the Giro that year and then went to my first Tour de France.
“I think that was a really important moment. I look at that as the start of everything I achieved up until now. That is where I built the biggest results that I did in my career. That was a period where I really felt like I was achieving what I sent out to do. That went on for quite a few years.”
Always a slow, measured talker, Hesjedal is in a reflective mood. The instinct in interviews is sometimes to push things along, but with the Canadian it’s a case of allowing him to dwell on the memories. To give him time to describe the images and emotions bubbling to the surface.
To sit back, ignore the silences and wait for the answers.
When he thinks of the years when his career was on the up, he smiles.
“I look back at that period and I am just satisfied and happy,” he explains. “It is what I always wanted to do in the sport and I was able to achieve that.
“I think for every athlete you are always setting this bar. In fact, you actually have different bars … there is a realistic one that you feel you should be able to obtain. That bar keeps getting moved. Then you have one that is kind of a dream … maybe it’s not realistic, but that is what you think about and dream about.
“The closer those two get together is, I think, the most exciting feeling you can have as an athlete. It is what gets you out of bed. It is what pushes you and gets you through all the tough times.
“For the amount of bad days, tough days that you go through, it is pretty amazing how one little result or ride or victory can just take care of all that. It is insane. I guess that is the beauty of the sport. It is what I feel has always motivated me and kept me pushing.
“You can go months and months and months without victory, and years sometimes … But just one special day and you forget about all the tough times. You are just ready to go forward again.”
In 2012 everything lined up perfectly for him, although it took three weeks to fully see that. Hesjedal lined out in the Giro d’Italia in Herning, Denmark as one of the marked riders, but not as the clear favourite. Ninth in Liège-Bastogne-Liège was a solid rather than spectacular result, and there were others who were much more quickly spoken of as Maglia Rosa contenders.
That suited him fine. Besides, he wasn’t convinced himself that he was going to take the final pink jersey.
“At that moment I wasn’t a rider who thought, when I went to a Grand Tour, that I was capable of winning,” he admits. “But I always believed in my ability … you just have to. You can’t go to a race and say it is not possible, this or that. It is always about doing the best you can.”
So while he wasn’t bigging himself up as a winner, he also wasn’t putting himself down.
“I was never in Denmark going, ‘maybe I could be top ten or maybe I could be podium,’ or whatever,” he continues. “It was just about doing the best possible.”
For the first three days, doing the best possible wasn’t very prominent. He was 17th in the prologue, 29 seconds behind the winner Taylor Phinney. He was then 23rd and 42nd on stages one and two. However, on day four, he and his Garmin-Sharp teammates hammered the Verona team time trial, beating closest rivals Katusha by five seconds. This elevated the Canadian to fourth overall and, three days later, he pulled on the pink jersey.
It was the first time in his career that he had worn a Grand Tour leader’s jersey, and the fit felt good. And while he slipped out of the Maglia Rosa several days later, he remained second overall. Poised to strike.
“I was always still in the picture,” he says. “So then, did I do the best rides of my life? Possibly.
“Maybe not on a pure physical level, but on another level, on a tactical level … That was the moment that it came together. Had I maybe done rides better another time? Yeah, but it didn’t all fall into place. For me that is what I had hoped I could eventually do. To get into that situation one day.”
Joaquim Rodriguez took over in pink on stage 10 thanks to his stage win into Montecantini Terme. He stayed on top for three days, Hesjedal dislodged him on stage 14, but then relinquished his grip one day later.
He stayed close, though, biding his time.
Ryder Hesjedal and Joaquim Rodriguez fight it out on stage 20 of the 2012 Giro d’Italia which Hesjedal eventually won in the final ITT the next day. Photo: RCS Sport
“When things work out it really feels good,” he says. “Because I know how hard it is. Plenty of guys can have good enough legs, but it just doesn’t work out. There are just so many things out of your control.”
The sport is notoriously unpredictable. Tactics, luck and happenstance all play a part in how results come about. On this occasion, stage after stage went right.
“To put that together over three weeks in a race that hard, when there is so much that can happen and go wrong, is incredibly satisfying,” he says. “It’s incredibly motivating.”
Because of that, he had a growing sense that things were moving in the right direction.
“Even in the last stretch of the race, I caught myself a little bit, going, ‘for sure, podium. That is for sure. You are going to get that, even if you have a problem or have a bad day.’
“And then the day to [Alpe di] Pamepago was probably one of the best rides I have ever done. That day the tactic from the team is that there is no reason to push it. To just follow and wait for the time trial. But in the end I raced on my feeling and put time into everybody on that stage.
“That was the day where they had to put me under pressure. But instead of just following and neutralising that pressure, I put the pressure on and took it with my two hands. That is what had to happen. That was me, that wasn’t the team, that wasn’t anybody.”
The ride set him up perfectly for the final day time trial in Milan. As expected he beat Rodriguez against the clock, ending the race 16 seconds ahead and on the top of the podium.
Looking back, his aggression on the road to Pamepago was key. It is also one of his most rewarding memories of that Grand Tour victory.
“You get extremely proud of stuff like that because that is what you work for,” he smiles. “That’s what you put everything into.”
The sun is still rising in Girona and a very warm October day is gaining momentum. Outside the Duran bar it remains chilly in the shadows, however, and Hesjedal has goosebumps. He’s been reminiscing about the Giro but these skinpimples are because he’s underdressed in jersey and shorts.
The clock is ticking and he has a training ride to do, but any assessment of his career must also address what happened four months after his Giro victory. In October 2013 Michael Rasmussen’s autobiography Yellow Fever stated that the Dane helped Canadian mountain bikers Seamus McGrath, Chris Sheppard and Hesjedal to learn how to dope.
Hesjedal issued a statement at the time essentially confirming the claims.
“Cycling is my life and has been ever since I can remember. I have loved and lived this sport but more than a decade ago, I chose the wrong path,” he stated then. “And even though those mistakes happened more than 10 years ago, and they were short-lived, it does not change the fact that I made them and I have lived with that and been sorry for it ever since.
“To everyone in my life, inside and outside the sport – to those that have supported me and my dreams – including my friends, my family, the media, fans, my peers, sponsors – to riders who didn’t make the same choices as me all those years ago, I sincerely apologize for my part in the dark past of the sport. I will always be sorry.”
Ryder Hesjedal in Girona, his European base for over ten years.
His Garmin-Sharp team said that he had spoken about the matter to both the US Anti-Doping Agency and the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sports. Because of the statute of limitations, Hesjedal didn’t incur a suspension.
Still, being confronted with Rasmussen’s testimony then was a jarring ghost from his past.
“For sure it was not easy,” he states. “I won the Giro on the back of a lot of hard work. To achieve that and to do it in the way that I did felt like it was important for the sport and for myself. So to go from that to six or eight months later going through that situation, it wasn’t easy. It is not something I wish anyone to go through. It was the absolute highs and lows.”
However he does see one benefit to the revelation. “It was something that needed to happen. I am glad it did, that I went through it. I wouldn’t want to still have that … [to address].
“As difficult as it was for me, it was my burden to bear. I feel like I did what I needed to do and that was it. I tried to just move on from it and keep working like I always have, the right way. But what can I say about it … it was not the easiest thing.”
Asked if it was a weight off his shoulders, though, he plays this down. Hesjedal states that by the time the Rasmussen story emerged, he had already found peace with his past.
“Personally I couldn’t have got to where I was at the time without dealing with that and moving forward,” he insists.
Whatever about the 1990s and 2000s, he insists that the sport is in a better place now.
“It’s one hundred percent different … no question. I would … I shouldn’t say kill, but I would kill to be a young rider now coming into the sport. That would just be amazing. The two eras are just incomparable.
“But you can’t look back and cry about the past. The sport is too hard and you just have to look forward and do the work.”
Ryder Hesjedal has a distinctive ring on his right hand. It has special significance for him. “My father had it made after Beijing, my first road Olympics.”
Hesjedal’s final season saw a change in colours, with the Canadian completing an eight-year stint with the Garmin/Cannondale/Slipstream squad and moving across to Trek-Segafredo. He’s enthusiastic about what that brought to him, saying that his time with the squad was ‘amazing.’
“It was everything that I wanted from this year,” he states, weighing things up.
“I got the opportunity to go for the Giro one more year. To just go through everything. The team … it was just a great team, a huge team. A lot of great guys around on the team that I was really happy to be teammates with and go through the season with them. It was just a great team to be part of.”
Still, as much as he enjoyed things, he is convinced that it is the right time to stop.
Asked what is coming next, he says that he wants to take his time before making a decision. Things have been go, go, go for so long that he wants to enjoy the luxury of stop. He simply wants to switch off from the competitive side of the sport. To let the next months pass without putting pressure on himself to jump into something new.
In ways that fits in with Hesjedal’s reputation. He was a rider who was known for being completely chilled out – including falling asleep on the team bus before major stages – and he is taking the same approach to retirement.
Some in his position would be wound up about the huge change to their lives, but he’s unperturbed.
“Honestly, it doesn’t really feel different,” he reasons. “It is a normal end of the season. After Lombardia, I always pack up and go back to North America at this time of year. So it’s not different. January will be a lot different when you don’t pack up and get ready to come back over.
“I don’t know how that will be. We will see when that comes, the feelings that brings. But right now again, I just want to appreciate everything, enjoy it a little bit more and that is it. Just wrapping things up and enjoying it and not dwelling too much on the old memories.
“Just pushing forward and moving on. It is exciting.”
Hesjedal before one of his last training rides in Girona. His apartment is one of those visible behind him.