Canada's Ryder Hesjedal ready for final week at Giro d'Italia
It doesn't get much bigger than this week for Ryder Hesjedal.
Standing second overall in the Giro d'Italia, the 31-year-old from Victoria has five stages and 925 kilometres to go before the storied race finishes Sunday in Milan with a 30-kilometre time trial.
Hesjedal, the designated leader of the Garmin-Barracuda team, enjoyed a rest day Monday before climbing back on his bike.
"It's been tough every day," he said of the two-week trek to date. "This race always has something there to keep the stress high and the pain going."
Hesjedal has been up to the challenge, however. The lanky veteran has had two stints in the leader's pink jersey — making Canadian cycling history in the process.
He has powered his way up mountains, endured cold and rain, ridden through the clouds and pushed his body to the limit.
So is he enjoying the ride?
"Hard to believe but yeah," he told The Canadian Press on Monday. "I mean there's no way you can do it if you didn't. It's too hard, it's too long, it's too demanding. If you were hating it every moment, you wouldn't be here.
"Sure there's hard moments and you're suffering and you'd rather be other places, but the rewards you get back from persevering, that's what keeps you here and I wouldn't trade anything for it."
Hesjedal is 30 seconds back of Spain's Joaquin Rodriguez. Two-time winner Ivan Basso is third, 1:22 behind Rodriguez, followed by Italian Paolo Tiralongo (1:26) and Roman Kreuziger of the Czech Republic (1:27).
Defending champion Michele Scarponi of Italy is sixth (1:36).
"[Domenico] Pozzovivo is also a gifted climber and that's what's coming up," Hesjedal said of the 13th-placed Italian (3:17). "The differences can be a lot bigger now once you hit these high mountains."
Whatever happens, Hesjedal has no regrets.
"I'm completely satisfied with this race to date," said the Canadian. "I'll just take every day as a bonus and see how far I can take it to Milan. Definitely a race I won't forget. It's just been great.
"I based a lot of my season around this race at the start of the year. Kind of sitting back and not pushing at a few races that I like to [push] and really having to hold back. It's worked out well."
Hesjedal had identified the race's final week as one in which he could profit. He has good endurance, climbs well and is also good in time trials. He has also finished strongly in his last two Tour De France rides.
The stages of the final week are classified as one flat, one medium mountain and three high mountains before the deciding time trial.
"It's more of the first two weeks. I mean every day's hard," said Hesjedal. "There's always something, there are always critical parts of each stage. I've had to race the first two weeks at a very high level being near the front, chasing the [pink] jersey and defending the jersey, being in the jersey.
"So every day's been hard and important. And this last week, it's the same. Even the medium mountain days, [as] they call them, in the first two weeks were brutal. It's been that way the whole race ... I'm just going to keep doing what I've been doing, that's all there is to it.
"We're in the groove now, and we just keep pushing through and it will be over before we know it."
Hesjedal has already shown in the Tour de France that he is a force to be reckoned with. In 2010, after teammate Christian Vande Velde crashed, Hesjedal took over the Garmin leader's mantle and finished seventh overall
But his third Giro campaign has shown more evidence of his mettle.
He won the pink jersey back Saturday with a lung-busting break near the end of a summit that earned him some precious distance from his fellow general classification rivals.
Hesjedal said there was no pre-planning. He just felt good and saw an opportunity to gain an advantage when some of his rivals found themselves without support.
"I figured I'd see how my legs would respond and get the ball rolling. I was able to just stick to it and benefit."
Rodriguez repaid the favour Sunday, winning it back with a sortie of his own in a stage that went to lone wolf rider Matteo Rabottini. The Italian rose much of the mountainous stage by himself, fighting off the challenge of Rodriguez in the final metres.
"I think that's the beauty of the sport. He was able to probably do more than he thought he was capable of," Hesjedal said of Rabottini's defiant finish.
Hesjedal and his teammates rode stationary bikes Monday, just to keep the legs loose.
The rest of the day was "mostly just sleeping in, having a good lunch and not having the stress of the racing."
Tuesday's 16th stage is a mainly uphill 173-kilometre ride from Limone sul Garda to Falzes/Pfalzen.
Hesjedal will be back on his primary race bike after being forced to use his spare bike Sunday because of a drive train issue.
"They're as close as can be to being the same but it's just never the same once you've been riding a bike for a couple of months — the way the seat's broken in and those sorts of things. It's not the same but sometimes you have to deal with it."
In other Canadian news, Dominique Rollin of Boucherville, Que., stands 126th, ahead of Christian Meier of Sussex, N.B., in 137th and Svein Tuft of Langley, B.C., in 162nd.
Rollin is riding for the French FDJ team while Meier are Tuft are with Australia's GreenEdge.