Sports  Canadian cyclist captivates Montreal and the world

Top cyclist Ryder Hesejdal sits down with fan and Daily sports writer to tell his story

In sport, there is likely no name more fitting to the athlete that bears it than Ryder Hesejdal. A soft-spoken, humble cyclist, Hesejdal lets his riding do the talking. So far, it’s brought him to the podium of the World Championships, a top-ten placing at the Tour de France, and enough accolades to fill this page.

Hesejdal was in town for the Grand Prix Cycliste de Montreal – a 205 kilometer, one-day race that takes place over a 12 kilometer circuit through the streets of Montreal. The course is characterized by three climbs on each lap, and always proves to be incredibly selective, suiting the characteristics of a cyclist like Hesejdal, who is a time trialist and climber best known for long solo breakaways in the mountain passes of the Alps. A year ago, he dazzled the crowds of Montreal with a third place finish at the Grand Prix and was awarded the day’s “Most Combative Rider” prize. This year, he was one of the most watched men in the Grand Prix, and a good placing in the race did not come with  ease.

I met Hesejdal in the lobby of a ritzy hotel for an interview that was never meant to happen. After numerous emails and phone calls to his press agent, I was led to a dead end. It wasn’t until a last ditch tweet that Hesejdal agreed to meet.

Finding him, however, proved to be much easier than contacting him.  Standing at 6’2’’ and weighing 159 pounds, the lanky Victoria native is pretty easy to pick out in a crowd, especially when he is clad in his black outfit adorned with the sponsors of his team, Garmin-Cervelo. As we spot each other, he’s bombarded by middle-aged fans looking for pictures, the spouse of another racer, and the eyes of everyone else in the room ceaselessly following him – we work quickly to get somewhere more secluded.

In a city abunadnt with cyclists, Hesjedal is far from being under the radar, but the road to recognition has been anything but short.

Like most kids who grew up in the suburbs, Hesejdal “grew up riding and getting around on bikes.” Hesejdal comments that he also played conventional “team sports like baseball, football, basketball, but was just always biking. That’s just what I did for fun.” By 12, Hesejdal’s biking ability was causing a stir. He raced mountain bikes on Vancouver Island, and “kept progressing and progressing.” Before long, he was making his way onto the international scene, scoring major sponsorships along the way. Now known for road cycling, his short mountain biking career was one of Canada’s best-kept sporting secrets.

He eventually became an international star on the World Cup Mountain Bike circuit at the turn of the millenium. Thrice medalling silver at the World Championships (Junior in 1998, Espoir in 2001 and then Elite in 2003), he was poised as the front-runner for Olympic glory in 2004. But his dreams of winning a gold medal in Athens were cut short, and he was left chasing a new dream – one with significantly less dirt and significantly paved roads.

Hesejdal discusses how the switch from mountain biking to cycling was “mentally hard, but I was also ready for it with the way everything culminated at the Olympics and the World Championships that year [2004]. I had a mechanical issue in the Olympics, and that was really the cause for my switch.” Hesejdal hoped to redeem himself after the fiasco at the Olympics at the World Championships of that year but crashed while training the week before, ending his chances at winning the World Championships. The events of the summer of 2004 were arguably Hesejdal’s biggest obstacles and something that, he says, “I wouldn’t wish on anyone, but it definitely helped me refocus and leave that behind, take on a new challenge, and move forward.”

The next season, Hesejdal made the switch to the road, but international success and recognition did not come nearly as quickly as it had with mountain biking. He was riding with some of the world’s best teams and winning smaller races, but he was largely filling the role of domestique – a rider that works for the benefit of the team. Hesejdal flourished in the Tour de France by selflessly helping teammate Christian Vandevelde win a surprising fifth place finish in 2008, and teammate Bradley Wiggins win fourth place the next year.

However, personal success was not far off for Hesejdal. It came on the mountainous stage of the 2009 Vuelta a España, a race in which he went on the attack. The race is the first stage of the three Grand Tours of Europe. Winning this stage was  a critical victory for him, and, from that point on, his career trajectory changed. Hesejdal showed that he could beat the best riders when it mattered. He further proved himself in the Amstel Gold Race and The Tour of California in following years.

When his team leader, Christian Vandevelde, went down in a crash during the 2010 Tour de France, Hesejdal was the logical choice to take over the reins. He had an incredible ride on stage 17, vaulting himself into the top ten of the world’s most famous cycling race: he finished the race in seventh place. It was the second-best placing ever for a Canadian, and it was the top result for a Canadian in more than twenty years.

At this year’s Tour de France, he wasn’t quite so lucky. He recalls, “I was riding G.C. [for the General Classification] and was fighting for every second of the day, worrying about every moment and every position.” He continues, “there can be a split, and staying out of trouble is the hardest aspect of the sport.” Ryder ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time on a couple of occasions and lost valuable time. He took it in stride and helped the team achieve a four-stage win with a top ten placing for teammate Tom Danielson. He also won the Team Classification Award.

His rise to the top echelon of cycling has paralled the growth of professional cycling in North America. There are not only more and more cyclists on the roads, but there has also been the addition of major races on this side of the Atlantic. Ryder notes, “it’s great not just to be in North America, but also to see the level of racing and how big it is now.” The images of thousands of people cycling in the Alps are being replicated in cities like Montreal with races like the Grand Prix. Unlike the fans in France, North America also offers a familiar language with “English cheers.” “It’s a hard, long season in Europe, and, more so now with these new events in North America, you can break it up. It’s nice for North American riders,” maintains Hesejdal.

Those same North American riders are also getting far more opportunities – the last decade has seen American teams, most notably Lance Armstrong’s U.S. Postal squad, come to the forefront of cycling, and governments are starting to provide more funding for their national cycling teams.  The creation of new teams, like Spidertech, a Montreal- based professional team, has given Canadian and American racers more chances to compete on professional teams. As Hesejdal points out, “it’s harder to crack into an Italian or a French team.” The increased presence of professional teams in North America has shown teams “that there is plenty of market and desire for the sport here.”   When asked about the chances of joining Spidertech, Hesejdal responds casually, “You never know. I think it’s a great program, and I think what they’re doing is great. I hope that I’m helping it with by doing what I’m doing, even on Garmin. What I’ve been able to do, for the sport in Canada is getting that awareness out there and that momentum.”

Hesejdal’s goals haven’t changed since adolescence. His goals are “right now, to just keep improving, just keep knocking on the door of the biggest races.” But there is no guarantee when it comes to cycling, as “there are so many moments out there where half a second is the difference sometimes, in all sorts of situations. It’s got to go right, your legs have to be good, and everything has to fall into place. A lot of times, it’s the things not even in your control, the other teams and riders and what they’re doing, and for it to fall into place, it’s a pretty special thing.”

This year in Montreal, Hesejdal came close to something special. He stayed out of trouble and sheltered himself from the wind, leaving him with energy to spare. With two laps left, he and a select group of cyclists attacked, gaining crucial seconds over the main pack, livening up the crowd that adores him, and putting his competitors on the chase. However, a win was just not in the cards for Ryder. His team’s chances dwindled as the competition edged closer, and they were eventually chased down. Another group of riders countered Hesejdal’s team’s attack and ended up winning in what was an extremely exciting day of racing. Ryder went on to finish in a respectable 11th place, becoming the best-placed Canadian for the second consecutive year.

As I thanked Ryder for the interview and wished him luck, we briefly spoke about how I had admired him since I was ten years old, when I had dreams of following in his footsteps into the realm of professional mountain biking. He looked over to a couple of old friends sitting on the couch across from us and asked if they’d heard how the interview came up. Concisely, he told them, telling them about the hashtag he had seen on his Twitter early that day, which read #FanSince99BleachedBlondeHairAndGaryFisher. When he repeated what I’d written on his account only hours earlier, laughter ensued. I realized then that it was the only reason he agreed to sit down with me.