This week in Spain, the greatest cyclist Canada has ever produced emerges from winter training to begin the process of repeating a feat few thought he was capable of in the first place.
It may also mark the start of a new clean era in cycling.
Ryder Hesjedal, from Victoria B.C., won the Giro d’Italia last year, the biggest bike race in the world after the Tour de France. He was hardly an unknown going in, but few expected him to win. Even he admitted that his competitors may have underestimated him, to their peril.
This week he’s competing in his first race of the season, the Tour of Catalunya in Spain. It marks the start of a six-week buildup which will culminate in May, when he tries to repeat that Giro win.
Between now and then, he’ll spend more days racing than not.
“I know I need good racing in my legs to come up a level, so the more racing I do starting now, with a good base under me, that’s what I need,” said Hesjedal on Sunday evening, just before beginning the Tour of Catalunya.
It’s a seven-day stage race that will take the riders up and down the mountains of northeast Spain. The competition is stiff. Hesjedal is riding against some of those he’ll be competing with at the Giro, including Bradley Wiggins, last year’s winner of the Tour de France.
Over the first two days, Hesjedal finished in the middle of the pack. He isn’t necessarily aiming to win this week.
“I wasn’t focused on performing here last year and I’m obviously trying to replicate the same sort of buildup to get myself where I want to be for the Giro.”
Some of his GarminSharp teammates he’s riding with this week in Spain are just returning to competition as well, but for very different reasons. Tom Danielson, Christian Vande Velde and David Zabriskie are in their first race of the season after serving bans for doping. They all helped blow the whistle on Lance Armstrong last fall, and got six-month suspensions for their own cheating.
A dark shadow remains over professional cycling. The Armstrong admission and the report by the United States Anti-Doping Agency confirmed the widely held suspicion that performance enhancing drug use was widespread for many years, and that efforts to catch the cheaters were largely ineffective.
In his interview with Oprah Winfrey, Armstrong said he believed it was impossible to win without doping. And many still wonder whether the sport is really any different from the Armstrong days.
Hesjedal puts himself up as proof that times have changed.
“I know I won the Giro d’Italia clean. Just to be able to say that is unreal. It’s sad to say but I could never have imagined that 10 years ago or five years ago. I’m just glad I’m in the sport at this time and can enjoy it.”
One of Armstrong’s former teammates, Canadian Michael Barry, took performance enhancing drugs, like many cyclists in the early 2000s. Barry retired last fall after submitting his own testimony against Armstrong. He agrees with Hesjedal that the world of professional cycling is different now.
“I know it’s possible to win without drugs at the highest level, and that’s a big, big change.”
Among other things, Barry says speeds in races have become slower, an indication there’s less cheating.
“In the last six years I was competing clean and I was able to perform better than I had when I was doping, which is surely a sign that things have improved a lot.”
Still, Barry isn’t suggesting cycling’s doping problems are over.
“It’s not going to be an overnight change. It’s going to be a longer process. You’re starting to see just how pervasive that doping culture was. And cycling has made a change in the last five, six, seven, eight, nine years. And it’s been a progressive change.”
One of Hesjedal’s main rivals at the Giro in May will be Wiggins, who has made winning the race his number-one goal this season. Both men are anxious to prove cycling has moved beyond its cheating past, and both are part of aggressively anti-doping teams.
GarminSharp boasts a “no needle” policy, where riders are forbidden from injecting themselves with anything, not even legal substances such as vitamins. Wiggins’s Team Sky refuses to employ anyone with a doping past, no matter how long ago the transgression and no matter whether they’ve made amends.
In interviews, Wiggins has often become exasperated with reporters who incessantly ask him about doping.
Hesjedal is more polite about it, but he too sees cycling’s drug culture as something that “was,” not something that “is.” When asked what the mood is going into this season, Hesjedal is upbeat.
“The mood’s great. The sport is as open as it’s ever been.”
He heads toward the Giro with the confidence of knowing he can win, because he’s done it before.
“I have the perfect [training] program and that’s all I’m focused on. And I know I can get to the top level.”
David Michael Lamb is a senior producer of CBC Radio’s World Report. Follow him on Twitter @arcticlamb.