Today, Canada celebrates Ryder Hesjedal, the guy who just finished seventh in the Tour de France, bicycle racing’s biggest annual event.
Ryder who? Seventh? Who cares about someone who placed seventh somewhere in France?
Who cares? You should, because Ryder Hesjedal is a made-in-B.C. phenomenon, only the fifth Canadian ever to ride in the Tour de France, the bike race from hell.
The more you learn about the Tour, the more you realize what a big deal seventh place is. The race is 22 days long, each stage averaging 187 kilometres, coursing through two mountain ranges. This year, Stage 17, where Hesjedal came fourth, featured the legendary Col du Tourmalet, the highest road in the Pyrenees: A 36-kilometre climb up 1,645 metres of elevation. Add treacherous switchbacks, fog, mist and the world’s best cyclists jockeying for position, and this unknown guy from Victoria places in the top five.
Just for the record, Spain’s Alberto Contador won the race, but Hesjedal has captured the hearts of Canadian cycle fans, and why not?
For one thing, Hesjedal came to pro cycling in a very West Coast way — he started racing mountain bikes when he was 14, and after losing the world championship in 2003 to a guy who was busted for doping at a later event (which means Hesjedal is probably the legitimate 2003 world mountain bike champ), he turned road bike pro.
Until this year, his role was to ride as a “domestique,” as they’re called in the Tour, basically to act as a wind break for the team star. But when star Christian Van de Velde crashed early and pulled out of this year’s race, Hesjedal got the go-ahead to compete for the “maillot jaune,” the winner’s yellow jersey. And compete he did. He almost won the 213-kilometre Stage 3 (complete with 13 kilometres of cobblestones, just for fun), fighting off superior sprinters until the very end.
It was his performance that had announcers around the world reaching for their pronunciation guides: Hesjedal? (Hesh-je-dal, emphasis on the second syllable), and as the tour wore on, he never had a bad day. And today, Ryder Hesjedal is our tour champion. No offence, Alberto Contador.
In a world where guys named Andrew Alberts make the NHL minimum $550,000 a year for riding the bench, Ryder Hesjedal restores the balance. And at 29, he’s now reaching the peak of his pro capabilities. This year, seventh. Next year, the maillot jaune?
Allez, Ryder, Allez!