I don't know, if, down the road, it's always going to be making sense to ride GC (at Grand Tours) or supporting someone that's better and taking different opportunities, so we'll see what the future holds.Ryder Hesjedal told me that as early as 2002, when he won the Volta Catalunya L'Avenir as a stagiaire with Rabobank, he had a fair idea of his potential on the road. But having said that, as late as the 18th stage of the 2010 Tour de France, where, the previous day, he finished fourth on the stage to the Col du Tourmalet and moved into eighth overall, he still didn't know whether he was good enough to be riding GC in a Grand Tour, let alone be in a position to win a three-week stage race.
At that July 23 interview with him in Salies-de-BÃ©arn, the day before the final time trial in Bordeaux where by day's end, he would move up a notch to seventh on GC, a position he held till Paris, I also asked him: How long have you been itching to be a Grand Tour rider, in terms of going for a high place on the overall?
"I don't know. I think the way I approached the Vuelta last year (in 2009) was really great. I think my Tour (de France) was successful last year and the year before. Riding in my role, every one has a job to do and is on the team and the team has objectives. So, I was clearly ready to perform a certain role in this (2010) Tour and that changed (when pre-race leader Christian Vande Velde crashed out on Stage 2), but I was ready to ride like I did the Vuelta, supporting the team. Taking my opportunities to win a stage in the Vuelta and not worry about the GC was a great way to ride through that tour, and I think that's where I am today."
In other words, this unassuming, softly spoken man from Victoria, British Columbia, never really knew he would become the Grand Tour champion he is today, the first Canadian ever to do so. It has only been through experience and hard graft that he has discovered he could be as such.
However that is not to say targeting the 2012 Giro d'Italia was governed by whim. Far from it, in fact.
In an interview I did with Hesjedal in January at the Santos Tour Down Under, he told me: "This year's going to be significantly different. I'm slated for the Giro. That's my first objective. So, I'll have the opportunity to focus on the GC in the Giro, and that'll set me up for the Tour de France. That's what I know, that's what I'm focusing on."
Though unlike the 2011 Tour de France where his team went into the race with three riders capable of finishing in the top 10 overall (Tom Danielson, Vande Velde, and himself), he started the 95th edition of 'La Corsa Rosa' in Herning on 5 May as the only leader on Garmin-Barracuda. No matter where he finished, even if he did not finish, his team would be there for him.
For Ryder, it has been an assiduous, flawless performance ever since.
Seventeenth in the Herning individual time trial. Part of the winning team in the Stage 4 team time trial in Verona, moving the Canadian into fourth overall. Race leader after Stage 7, which he held till Stage 9. Back in the maglia rosa, albeit for one day, on Stage 14. Riding within himself all the way through to Stage 17 to Cortina d'Ampezzo, where Katusha's Joaquim RodrÃguez, despite winning the stage and holding onto the race lead, ominously foretold: "If Hesjedal stays with us (in the final two mountain stages), then the Giro d'Italia is his." Liquigas team boss, Roberto Amadio, also told VeloNews post-stage, "(Hesjedal) can take three minutes out of 'Purito' in the time trial and one-and-a-half minutes out of Ivan (Basso)."
Basso, Liquigas's leader at the Giro and champion in 2006 and 2010, was third overall at that point but suffered badly on Stages 19 and 20 and dropped to fifth, where he would remain.
On the 197km long 19th stage to the Alpe di Pampeago, Hesjedal did more than stay with the Katusha leader; 1.8km from the 1740metre-high summit, he put in a vicious dig that narrowed his margin to RodrÃguez to 17 seconds. After a half-hearted attack in the closing moments of Stage 20 to the Passo dello Stelvio, a 218km slog across the Dolomites, the Spaniard they call 'Purito' clawed back 14 of those seconds previously lost to the 1.88-m tall Canadian, leaving him 31 seconds in front before the Milan time trial.
But it was too little, too late, just as the juvenile tactics of Liquigas amounted to nothing more than too much, too soon. "Liquigas is kind of a one-trick pony, as far as that goes," Vande Velde told Cycling Central in Alpe di Pampeago.
"They go from strong, to stronger, to strongest. And if they're not smashing other people, a lot of the time they're helping other people." The final kilometre move by RodrÃguez was more an attack aimed at protecting what inevitably would be second place overall, rather than one to win the Giro d'Italia. RodrÃguez, in retrospect, has only himself to blame.
Thomas De Gendt's incredible ride aside, the queen stage failed to live up to expectations. As Vande Velde correctly predicted the day before: "I don't know how much more legs people are going to have tomorrowÃ¢â¬¦ people are going to be on their hands and knees.
"Sometimes, you come to an end of a race like this and people are justÃ¢â¬¦ just so destroyed. Sometimes, you just can't even make the difference. Everyone's (a) diesel. It's not like who's strong. It's who's more dead." Again, proof that "the hardest race in the world's most beautiful race" mantra sounds great in theory but in reality becomes a veritable contradiction; you can have a stage finish on the moon but if no one can get there, what is the point?
And so, for the second year in succession, we find ourselves celebrating yet another mountain biker cum Grand Tour champion. Yet another reason why Cycling Australia's decision to axe the mountain bike cross-country high performance program at the end of 2009 was short-sighted, as we may well be overlooking, or have already overlooked, our next Cadel Evans.
Will the 31-year-old Hesjedal now turn his attention towards a podium tilt at the big daddy, Le Tour de France? Perhaps not this year, as it will be difficult for him to recover in time to be at his best, and team-mate Danielson, eighth last year, has declared he'll be gunning for the podium. But in 2013?
After the fortitude he's shown throughout the past three weeks, physical and mental, coupled with his no-nonsense, no-frills approach to life, I have no doubt we'll see him front up to Corsica next July with exactly that in mind. And he will prepare and prosecute said objective in the same manner he's done to win this bellissimo Giro d'Italia.
For Hesjedal, riding GC in Grand Tours is making a lot of sense. It's commonsense. No ifs. No buts. No hesitation.