Each year in early December, Ryder Hesjedal brings several teammates and friends over to his winter home on Maui – and invites 15 paying clients, hardcore elite recreational cyclists. The groups rip around the island for a week of intense riding – with a little bit of relaxed down time on the water. But on the roads, it is real work, not something diluted for non-professionals, and it marks a demarcation point of a sort for Hesjedal, the end of one season and the beginning of another.
This year, Hesjedal put in close to 30 hours on the bike over eight days. Hesjedal brings outsiders into his world – and his world is as intense as ever.
"Riding around this island is not easy by any means," the Victoria-raised cyclist said in a year-end interview. "It's about showing people what a pro-level training camp is all about in a genuine setting. This is where I build my foundation."
Hesjedal ends 2012 having reached a cycling pinnacle never before ascended by a Canadian, victory at the Giro d'Italia last May, a 16-second win sealed in the final moments of a gruelling 21 stages over 23 days in the 95th running of the race. It was the first time a Canadian has won one of the three grand cycling tours in Europe, the Tour de France being the best known, the Giro near-equal to its French cousin, and the Spanish tour, Vuelta a Espana, the third in the group.
The Giro victory is the greatest achievement yet by a Canadian cyclist and was one of the great sporting heights reached in 2012 by a Canadian athlete – the stirring win scored Hesjedal the Lionel Conacher Award as male athlete of the year, announced Wednesday by The Canadian Press. He became the first cyclist to win the award.
"An incredible honour," the soft-spoken Hesjedal said from his off-season home in Hawaii. "I finished 2011, I got married to my beautiful wife [Ashley] and I was just focused on that goal – taking a crack at the Giro and knowing that deep down I have the capacity for three-week racing.
"For the season to unfold the way it did in the spring and have that perfect run, really, in respect to my training, was just right. I didn't get sick, I had no setbacks. To arrive at the Giro and have it unfold the way it did, I had the opportunity to show myself and that's what athletes dream of."
Hesjedal finished with 139 points and 32 first-place votes in balloting of sports editors and broadcasters across the country. Tennis star Milos Raonic was runner-up with 131 points and 26 first-place votes. Calgary Stampeders running back Jon Cornish was third (87, 14), followed by Tampa Bay Lightning sniper Steven Stamkos (69, 12) and figure skater Patrick Chan (68, 11).
Riding in Hawaii through the rest of this winter, Hesjedal has a singular goal: replicate 2012. Just as a year ago, Hesjedal is putting in his foundation hours on the bike in Hawaii and its forgiving winter temperatures and climate, where the riding strategy is "pure volume in the legs."
The program involves 20 to 30 hours on the bike each week, generally days of four to six hours, with short days of an hour, and rest days, sprinkled in the calendar.
Come March, Hesjedal and his Team Garmin-Sharp-Barracuda start racing, beginning with the Volta a Catalunya – a tour of northeast Spain in the Barcelona region over a week, through to the Tour de Romandie, six stages in Switzerland around Geneva in late April just before the Giro. The early days racing, Hesjedal noted, isn't necessarily about wins; he considers it to be more live-fire training.
"We're focused on defending my Giro title," said Hesjedal, calling it the team's "highest priority."
"The whole approach to the season is the same, starting in March, identical to this season."
The Tour de France remains a goal, too. But a win there, like on any Grand Tour, is elusive, even if a rider is poised. Hesjedal – who finished sixth in France in 2010 – came off the 2012 Giro uncertain if his body would be ready for the demands of France a month later – but was buoyed to discover he was even stronger in France than Italy, though his 2012 Tour de France was sideswiped by a group crash in the sixth stage.
Hesjedal, 32, said he is confident he can again come out of the Giro ready to take on France. The 6-foot-2, 159-pound rider said 2012 was "more confirmation of my [physical] characteristics," the ability to ride through pain, and become stronger for it.
Yet France isn't some mountain that Hesjedal must top to consider his cycling career a success.
"A lot of people would think, 'Well, all this is a next step to win the Tour de France,'" Hesjedal said. "But to me, winning the Giro is just as prestigious, if not more so – and I'm just completely satisfied being a Giro winner. I'd be completely satisfied with my career if I don't win another Grand Tour. That's just the way it is in cycling. But that said, do I want to try and do that again? Definitely. That's what's driving me forward."
The second-last stage of the 2012 Giro, before it concluded with a 30.9-kilometre sprint in Milan, featured a ridiculous climbing day, 5,900 metres in total (two-thirds of the elevation of Mount Everest), pairing two of Italy's most famous climbs, the Mortirolo and the Stelivo. It was on those mountains that Hesjedal held close to race-leader Joaquin Rodriguez. Rodriguez, a Spaniard, started the final stage in Milan with a 31-second lead but was outsprinted by Hesjedal, who won the Giro by 16 seconds, the second-thinnest margin in the race's century-old history.
The feeling of wearing the maglia rosa at the conclusion of the Giro, the pink leader's jersey, reverberates with Hesjedal.
"Every day," Hesjedal said. "It's that big. It's that significant. It's something you think about [in all the years of] everyday training, just dreaming of that achievement. For it to become a reality – I did win the Giro – I think about it regularly. It's very motivating."