A week has passed, and Ryder Hesjedal is firmly ensconced in the record books as the victor of the 95th edition of the Giro d’Italia. As the first Canadian to win a grand tour, Hesjedal created history in Milan last Sunday with his come-from-behind conquest over Joaquim Rodriguez. But while the result is not in question, the aftershocks of the verdict reverberate.
This year’s Giro d’Italia was the most wide-open edition of the race in years. There was no Alberto Contador, no Ivan Basso in his prime, no patron to dominate the peloton as it wound its way through Italy via Denmark over the course of three weeks. Instead a pack of contenders marked one another, biding their time, waiting for the mountains to come. Hesjedal slipped on the pink jersey of the Giro leader on Stage 7, finishing in the front group on race to the top of the Rocca di Cambio in the Apennines. But three days later, when Joaquim Rodriguez won the finishing climb to the old hilltop town of Assisi, the jersey slipped off the Canadian’s shoulders and onto those of the Spaniard.
Rodriguez, 33 years old, had hovered on the cusp of greatness for several seasons. In the 2010 Vuelta a España, he retroactively reached the podium when Ezequiel Mosquera’s results were expunged due to the use of hydroxyethyl starch, a masking agent for erythropoietin. His consistency over the season left him as the leader in the UCI World Rankings at the end of 2010, a boost of confidence that carried over to a top-five finish at last year’s Giro d’Italia.
The give and the take between the two riders was amazing, but the entire time there was no certainty that either man would stand atop the podium on the final day after Thomas De Gendt went on an audacious breakaway up the Mortirolo and Stelvio on the penultimate stage, clawing away time to put himself at times into the virtual lead. In the end it only guaranteed a podium spot, third over Michele Scarponi, but it was a Merckxian display of verve rarely seen in the modern era of the sport.
Ultimately, though, this was to be Canada’s celebration… or was it merely Garmin-Barricuda’s celebration?
Canadian cycling has long been overshadowed by the successes of its southern neighbor. While Alexi Grewal and Greg LeMond and Andy Hampsten and the rest were engineering a 1980s global invasion of a sport long dominated by the traditional European powers, Canucks were enjoying more modest successes. Olympic gold medals and the rainbow jersey of the world champion were followed by maillots jaune and a maglia rosa. And that momentum was maintained, with Lance Armstrong and Bobby Julich, Floyd Landis and George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer and Dave Zabriskie all making their mark on the international racing scene through the next two decades.
The Great White North was relegated to second fiddle. Never had one of its citizens stood on a podium at a grand tour, riders like Alex Stieda and Steve Bauer wearing the yellow jersey at the Tour de France but unable to translate it into a top-three placing. Stieda, in his only grand tour, became the first Canadian to wear the yellow (and green and polka-dot and white) jersey at the Tour de France when he finished in the front group on the second stage in 1986. He would finish the race 120th, nearly two and a half hours behind the winning time of LeMond’s first conquest of Le Grande Boucle.
Steve Bauer would come closest to the pinnacle, time and time again. At the 1984 Olympics he would be thwarted in his quest for gold in the road race by a blood-doped Grewal, taking home silver in his last race before turning professional. In his second pro race, the 1984 UCI World Championships in Barcelona, he would take bronze behind Claude Criquielion and Claudio Corti. The next few years he would serve as lieutenant to LeMond and Bernard Hinault, in the service of others and earning his way into the sport’s top echelon.
Bauer would win Stage 1 of the 1988 Tour, donning yellow for five days. He would grimly try to hang with Pedro Delgado and Fabio Parra and Steven Rooks in the mountains, but too much time was shed as Bauer finished 2:17 from the podium in 4th place overall. A year later he would win the Dauphiné Libéré before finishing a disappointing 15th in the Tour. A season-closing win in the Zürich-Metzgete one-day classic renewed his focus, setting him up for another shot at glory in 1990.
For a moment it looked like he had become the first North American to win the Hell of the North, side by side with Eddy Planckaert in the Roubaix velodrome after the two men had proven to be equals on the hundreds of kilometers of cobblestones that had preceded this final sprint finish. Five men would start the sprint, but only two would be forever linked in the closest Paris-Roubaix finish in the race’s century-plus history. The photo finish would take over ten minutes to analyze as both men nervously awaited the decision. Ultimately the award would go to the Belgian, a mere centimeter separating the two after over 150 miles of racing.
Disappointed but bolstered by his result in Roubaix, Bauer came to the Tour de France determined to finally make his mark. Again he donned the yellow jersey, spent nine glorious days in the race lead… and finished 27th in Paris, over thirty minutes behind LeMond as the American claimed the final of his three Tour triumphs. He would never come closer than that step off the podium.
For Hesjedal to exorcise the inferiority complex that has dogged Canadian cyclists for decades at the top tiers of the pro ranks — those Canucks resolutely huffing along in the shadow of American achievements — required taking a page out of the LeMond playbook instead of the Bauer playbook, stealing away the spoils at the last moment in a time trial performance for the ages.
The real question to be asked, though, is whether this victory is really a Canadian achievement. The nine-man team which Garmin-Barricuda brought to Denmark for the start of the 2012 edition of the Giro was comprised of Hesjedal, three Americans, a South African, a Belgian, a Lithuanian, a Kiwi and a Dane. The same movement through the 1970s and 1980s which saw the sport expand its search for talent beyond its traditional European borders also saw teams become more cosmopolitan in their composition.
Trade teams have always been an integral part of cycling. And the one period, from 1930 to 1961, when the Tour de France instituted national teams instead of sponsored trade teams in the Tour, proved that loyalties are often tied to money rather than patriotism in terms of professional sport. The contenders would find assistance more often from their national-team “rivals” who were teammates most of the year than they would from their own compatriots.
And as the talent pool expanded, so too did the diversity of each team at the top of the sport. This year at the Giro d’Italia, just one team was incorporated in and comprised of cyclists who were all citizens of the same country — the Basque/Spanish team Euskaltel-Euskadi. Two other teams were entirely filled with Italian starters — Colnago and Farnese Vini — but the former is an Irish-based team, the latter based in Great Britain despite the Italian roots of their sponsors.
As an individual accomplishment, Hesjedal can indeed take pride in the fact that he is the first Canadian to ascend to the heights so long sought by Stieda and Bauer and those that would follow them into the pro peloton. But at the same time, he is merely the leader of an American-based team that was assisted by teammates from six nations… none of which were countrymen of his own. The paradox of cycling has always been that it is a team sport where the individual is lauded.
So which is it… is this a Canadian victory, or a Garmin-Barricuda victory? For both, it is an inaugural taste of being the top dog at a grand tour. In cycling, victory can be celebrated at many levels, and both are accurate enough in their own right.