Ryder Hesjedal may be a marked man at this year's Giro d'Italia, but the Canadian cyclist says he has never been more relaxed.
Hesjedal will try to become the first rider to win back-to-back Giro titles since Spain's Miguel Indurain in 1992 and 1993 when the iconic race begins Saturday in Naples, Italy.
Hesjedal was considered a strong rider heading into last year's 95th running of the race — he was fifth at the 2010 Tour de France — but he was still an outsider in a field of top European racers that included two-time winner Ivan Basso and defending champion Michele Scarponi.
Undaunted, the Victoria native stayed in the mix with consistent performances in each stage and took the pink jersey on the race's final day, becoming the first Canadian to win a Grand Tour event and the second non-European to win the Giro.
Hesjedal won't be flying under the radar this year, and the likes of 2012 Tour de France winner and Olympic gold medallist Bradley Wiggins and Italian favourite Vincenzo Nibali will be gunning for him. But Hesjedal has been buoyed by his preparation for the gruelling 21-stage race, which finishes in Brescia in May 26.
"I have that confidence, and I'm relaxed in the sense that I've already won the Giro," Hesjedal said Thursday in a phone interview from Naples. "I was able to accomplish that last year, so that's a big thing and these achievements don't come easy or often so I'm glad I'm here again to try and do it again but I'm probably the most relaxed I've been in my career."
Hesjedal was instrumental in helping his Garmin-Sharp teammate Daniel Martin win the Volta a Catalunya in Spain and the Liege-Bastogne-Liege race in Belgium leading up to the Giro. He showed some aggression in Belgium, making a solo breakaway with about 15 kilometres to go and ultimately finishing eighth.
"I feel stronger than last year," said Hesjedal. "I've done the hard work and gone through the moments where there's no guarantees. I said a long time ago it's one thing to win the Giro, but to go back there again to try again is a different story."
Hesjedal said he's glad he made it through the tune-up races unscathed.
"It's a fairly intense program leading into the race, so it's no small feat to get through without bad luck or injury or all the things that can happen in bike racing," he said.
Hesjedal has no problem challenging other competitors and won awards for his aggressive riding three times in 2010. He claimed the most combative rider awards at single-day races in Montreal and Quebec City as well as the combativity award in the fourth stage of the Tour de France.
He said he will bring that measured aggression to the 2013 Giro.
"You have to force the race at different times and take your chances when you think you can make an impression," he said. "You can't win a three-week race unless you've been in front of everyone at some point, so you need to be aggressive when you think it's time and take your chances. That's part of trying to win the race."
Hesjedal will have a solid team behind him as he tries to win back-to-back titles. Christian Vande Velde and Tom Danielson, both Tour de France top-10 finishers, join Peter Stetina, Ramunas Navardauskas, David Millar, Robbie Hunter, Thomas Dekker and Nathan Haas as members of a team built around Hesjedal.
"Every team in the race has to work toward propelling one person as hard as possible. You can't do it by yourself," Hesjedal said. "There are guys on the team that I'll be racing with that I've been with for six years on this program. Those bonds and the things that you've gone through, I mean you can't just replicate that kind of stuff. I know the team is 100 per cent supporting me and that's a huge compliment."
Hesjedal said he's seen cycling gain momentum worldwide on both a competitive and recreational level, particularly with people in large cities realizing the environmental and health benefits of biking to work or while running errands.
He said the momentum can be seen in Canada, where a multi-stage race sanctioned by cycling's governing body will debut this year. The six-day Tour of Alberta will start Sept. 3 in Edmonton and finish in Calgary.
"I was the first Canadian to win a Grand Tour and a race as historic and prestigious as the Giro d'Italia ... I mean I would be excited if I was a younger person and saw that," he said. "I know I was always motivated by people I saw competing on the world stage from my country."
"It's a great time for the sport," Hesjedal added. "I think Canadian cycling is by far at the highest level it's ever been so it's great to be a part of it."