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The making of a hometown cycling hero

Leonard Hesjedal's mad dash to Italy came to a screeching halt at a police roadblock.

Leonard Hesjedal's mad dash to Italy came to a screeching halt at a police roadblock.

With his cyclist son looking good to win the legendary Giro d'Italia, Leonard and two of Ryder's oldest friends, Seamus McGrath and Cody Graham, had piled onto a plane in Victoria, flown to Milan and driven overnight to the Alps, arriving just in time for the end of the decisive second-to-last day of the three-week race - only to find their path barred by the carabinieri.

The police spoke no English, but the message was clear: No credentials, you're not getting through.

That's when Leonard displayed his passport with one hand, held up a copy of the Gazzetta dello Sport newspaper in the other, nodded to a story about Ryder and declared "Hesjedal papa."

"Avanti!" cried the cops, flinging open the gates and shooing the trio up the storied Passo del Stelvio, the long, excruciatingly steep switchbacked climb that concluded that day's 219-kilometre stage.

The Victorians got to the top just in time to see the defining moment in one of the greatest achievements in Canadian sports history: 31-year-old Ryder Hesjedal, his face contorted in pain, legs cramping and lungs desperate for oxygen that at 9,000 feet just wasn't there, fending off attack after attack by rivals intent on breaking him.

The entire 3,502-kilometre race came down to this one final tortuous ascent.

True, there was still the next day's time trial in Milan, after which the Victorian would emerge victorious by just 16 seconds - a ridiculously thin margin after 92 hours in the saddle - but this little piece of hell made it all possible.

"I saved my Giro that day," Ryder says. "It was the hardest day of the race."

His emotions are evident in Champion, the short video Graham shot: exhaustion, agony, triumph as Hesjedal crossed the finish line. And just as it sunk in that he really could become the first Canadian to win a Grand Tour, Ryder noticed the man at his elbow - out of the blue, a total surprise, there was his father.

"That moment would have been crazy enough, but for my dad, Cody and Seamus to be there was pretty hard-core," Ryder says. "I think you can see on my face how exciting that was."

He was thrilled that they were there for the end of a long, grinding climb that began not in Italy, but in the Highlands when he was just 12 years old.

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"The earliest memories I have, I can remember having a bike around," Ryder said this week, on the phone from Girona, Spain, his base during the European racing season.

Girona is where he has been training for the Tour de France, which begins this Saturday, and the London Olympics.

Even in his hometown, where 1,700 riders are to huff and puff their way through the marathon cycling event that bears his name today, Victorians can't fully grasp how big a deal Hesjedal has become on that side of the Atlantic.

So here are some clues. When Hesjedal and friends showed up for the Giro afterparty, the Milanese nightclub assigned them their own bouncers. The day after his May 27 win, an Italian newspaper carried 14 photos of him. There were 1.3 billion unique Internet searches on his name that month, pretty much the most for anyone not named Bieber.

"Ryder Hesjedal's Giro d'Italia triumph is the single greatest accomplishment by a Canadian athlete in the history of the country," pronounced author Richard Poplak, writing in The Walrus.

Toronto Star columnist Cathal Kelly was just a little more muted: "Hesjedal's comefrom-behind victory at the Giro d'Italia - one of cycling's three Grand Tours - ranks among the most impressive individual accomplishments by a professional Canadian athlete. Ever."

Hesjedal is going into the Tour de France relaxed. His whole season was focused on the Giro, and he won that. He is going into the Tour as team leader; if he has a good start, great, but if one of his teammates shows more promise, he'll be happy to ride in support of him instead. No pressure. "I can go there and enjoy it." It will be fun to have his sister Kyla and his mother Paige (who, like Leonard, works for the CRD) there as cheerleaders for the first week.

It's all a long way from Millstream Elementary, which is where Leonard thinks Ryder caught the riding bug at a bike-safety course. After that, it was hard to stop him.

Every day after school, Ryder and his buddies would jump on their mountain bikes the way Prairie kids pull on skates. "They would go out for hours, come back with scraped shoulders and elbows," says Leonard. "They just thought that was the greatest fun on Earth."

Ryder says it was a perfect fit for a kid who loved both sports and the outdoors. "I enjoyed just going out and adventuring.

That's what I did around Highlands and the West Shore."

That's where he grew up. The family lived in Sooke when Ryder was born in Victoria's old St. Joseph's Hospital on Dec. 9, 1980, but bounced to Metchosin, Saanich, Highlands, Colwood and then Metchosin again (allowing much of the region to now claim him as a native son).

One day, when Ryder was still a preteen, he said "Dad, I want to go in this race."

It was at Burnt Bridge, back of Shawnigan Lake. Ryder placed second. The organizer turned out to be Dave Smith, an old friend of Leonard's. If the kid is serious, he should enter the B.C. Cup mountain-biking series, Smith told Leonard.

So that's what they eventually did. "We'd all pack up in the Suburban and go off to these races," Leonard recalls.

Kelowna, Whistler, 100 Mile House - that's a lot of driving, a lot of ferry fares, to chase a 14-year-old's passion. When Smith then set up a development team, one that included the likes of future Olympian Geoff Kabush, Ryder was the only junior.

It was impressed upon him early that if he really wanted to succeed, he would have to commit, have to forgo hanging out at the beach, partying, all the usual kid stuff. He made the decision consciously. "I remember sitting down and doing that in Grade 9," Ryder says. "I was excited to commit to something I enjoyed."

Graham has known Ryder since Spencer Junior High in Langford, and shared a home with him later. "He was always way more focused than anyone else I knew. He wasn't drinking and partying and staying up all night with us. He had it in his mind to be the best in the world."

Ryder turned pro in 1999 and progressed rapidly. A 2003 cover of Velo News magazine featured two Victorians, Ryder Hesjedal and Roland Green, who between them had won 19 straight races on the North American professional mountain-biking circuit. They were among an incredibly talented group to emerge on the Victoria cycling scene: Kabush, McGrath, Erinne Willock, Melanie McQuaid, Andreas Hestler, Max Plaxton, Lesley Tomlinson....

Indeed, Hesjedal led the 2003 mountain bike world championships in Switzerland until the very end, when he was caught by Belgium's Filip Meirhaeghe (who, a year later, tested positive for the drug EPO). In 2004, Ryder appeared on his way to a gold medal at the Athens Olympics before a sharp rock flattened his tire.

He had been competing in both mountain biking and road cycling that year, but switched to the latter full time in 2005.

"I needed something new," he says. Road riding had a richer heritage and a bigger stage and was rising in popularity as mountain biking peaked.

But the change meant starting at the very bottom of the road-racing rankings. Road teams usually comprise eight or nine members, most of whom race in support of a designated star known as a general classification rider, fetching him water, shielding him from the wind, that sort of thing. Ryder was buried as a worker bee, first for Discovery Channel (with whom he failed to complete his first Giro d'Italia in 2005) then Swiss-based Phonak.

When Phonak folded, he returned to North America for 2007 (but, tellingly, didn't give up his apartment in Girona). It was like going down to the minor leagues, but a good move in that he put himself in a position where he could shine in more prominent roles and get noticed.

It paid off in 2008, when he signed on with Slipstream, a new, U.S.-based outfit now known as Garmin-Barracuda, with whom he remains. The team brought an easygoing attitude to the cycling scene, along with an aggressive anti-doping program. Hesjedal doesn't like to get drawn into discussions of cycling's drug-tainted past - he doesn't see what it has to do with the here and now. Suffice it to say he likes riding for a team whose policies have left it relatively free of the speculation that dogs the sport.

It was with that team that, in 2008, he became the first Canadian in more than a decade to ride the Tour de France, helping teammate Christian Vande Velde to a fourth-place finish, then circling the globe to compete in the Beijing Olympics.

In 2009, he won a stage of the Vuelta d'Espana, then broke through in the 2010 Tour de France with a seventh-place finish (belatedly bumped up to sixth when Spain's Alberto Contador was caught doping), the best result by a Canadian since Steve Bauer was fourth in 1988. Hopes for individual glory in the 2011 Tour ended early when he got caught up in a crash caused by a fan, but Garmin won the team title.

Then came this spring's Giro, which vaulted Ryder to the very top.

Of all the cycling races around the world, the three Grand Tours - the Tour de France, Italy's Giro, and Spain's Vuelta - stand out. The Tour is most prestigious, followed by the Giro, even though many argue the latter's steep climbs make it the tougher challenge. Graham remembers a long-ago conversation in which Ryder told him the French event was always going to have the cachet, but the Italian one was the real deal: "That's the hard man's race."

"Winning a Grand Tour, that's the ultimate dream," says McGrath. "He became a worldwide superstar overnight."

The thing is, Hesjedal doesn't act like a superstar. In a sport where waaay too many competitors seem waaay too intense, he is the antithesis of the prickly, woundtoo-tight cyclist with the veins popping out of his neck (which, you must admit, is a bad look for anyone in spandex).

Hesjedal doesn't walk, he ambles, looselimbed, 159 pounds on a lanky 6'2" frame. The only time he appears in a hurry is when he's clipped in to the pedals. He smiles easily, but doesn't talk a lot. If you want to learn about him riding with the likes of Owen Wilson, Woody Harrelson and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers on Maui, where Ryder has a winter training camp, you'll have to hear about it from someone else. Actor James Marsden is a fan and friend.

"He's not going to sit there and rattle off a list of press points to make himself look good," Graham says. "If you want to know who he is, go for a bike ride with him, go for a hike with him."

"He's just the average Canadian guy," McGrath says. "He's humble, he's hardworking, he's proud - great qualities that Canadians admire."

But inside that Labrador retriever lurks a sled dog. His riding style mirrors his ascent in the cycling world, disciplined and unrelenting. He is good at the time trials and the I-can-gut-it-outlonger-than-you mountain climbs, but not the sprints, which generally are won by the guys with thighs like tree trunks, cycling's equivalent of quarterhorses.

"He was never the explosive guy out of the gate who's going to be a flash in the pan," says Graham. "It was always going to be a slow, steady rise. He's such a diesel motor. He doesn't crack."

Leonard Hesjedal uses the same analogy. "That diesel-power engine just keeps pulling." Father and son have one difference of opinion: Ryder says he gets stronger in the third week of a race, but Leonard says it's the other competitors who weaken. Ryder has a phenomenal ability to recover after a hard ride, something his dad traces to those training days in the Highlands: "I would say, 'Why are you going out? It's snowing' and he would say, 'I have to do three hours today.' "

That work ethic impresses other riders, including Victoria's Troy Woodburn, another longtime friend: "He's got the best head for cycling, the best drive, I've ever seen. You have to get out there and you have to do the miles to be good."

Ryder is also famously unflappable. Nothing seems to rattle him, not the danger - a Belgian cyclist died in a highspeed crash in the 2011 Giro - and not the screaming, flag-waving, costumed (or occasionally naked) fools who crowd the course. It's not easy to keep your wits about you, says McGrath: "It's hard to do when your heart is going 189 beats a minute and the lactic acid is burning your legs."

McGrath met Hesjedal in 1996, when they travelled to the world championships in Australia. They raced the pro circuit together after that. They competed in the 2004 Olympics and became training partners.

So when it appeared Ryder had a shot at winning the Giro, McGrath had to be there. So did Leonard Hesjedal and Graham, who, as co-owner of Victoria's Media One Multimedia, runs the website. They were joined a day later at the Milan finish line by Woodburn, co-owner of Vic West's Trek Bicycle Store and the mechanic who travelled with Hesjedal to the world championships and the Olympics.

Having them all there meant a lot. As much as cycling is a solitary sport, Hesjedal has a keen sense of team, of community. That extends from appreciation for the likes of Garmin's Vande Velde and Peter Stetina, who helped drag him up the Stelvio, to those back home in Victoria. His teammates joke about Hesjedal carrying "the weight of a nation" but there's a touch of truth to the humour. Performing well for the people who support him is important. "He wants to do a good job, he doesn't want to let people down," Graham says.

Note that Hesjedal raised $10,300 this week by auctioning off his first Giro leader's pink jersey - the famed maglia rosa - to benefit Olympic-bound Canadian cyclists and his own Ryders Cycling Society of Canada, a non-profit that promotes cycling and helps young riders.

In Victoria, he has been quick to participate in events promoting the Tour de Rock, Bike To Work Week and other causes. He has also lent his name to Ryder Hesjedal's Tour de Victoria Powered By Goodlife Fitness, the official title of the event that will see those 1,700 cyclists tackle Victoriaarea courses of 50, 100 or 140 kilometres today. Unlike 2011's inaugural ride, this one will proceed without him. "Obviously, I'd love to be there." he says. "It was one of the highlights of my year last year. I'll be there in spirit."

McGrath, the Tour de Victoria race director, says registrations took off right after the Giro. It meant there was a lot of work to do after his gone-on-Thursday, back-on-Monday trip to Italy.

It was worth it, though, being at the finish line in Milan with Graham, Woodburn and Leonard Hesjedal. The television cameras caught them all, McGrath waving a Canadian flag on the end of a hockey stick that he bought for $10 at Canadian Tire in Langford. (He had to saw the stick in three, stow it in his hand luggage, then tape it back together in Milan; the trip was so rushed that there was no time for checked baggage). There was Ryder staggering off his bike, being embraced by his wife - he married the former Ashley Hofer in Missouri in December - and then, as the enormity of what he had just accomplished hit, putting his hands to his head.

This wasn't supposed to happen. Only one non-European, Andy Hampsten of the U.S. in 1988, has his name among the 94 other champions.

"A guy from Victoria isn't supposed to win the Giro," Graham says. "Imagine if an Italian hockey team won the Stanley Cup."

Leonard says Italians took the Canadian victory with good grace. "I think they were more than happy that it wasn't a Spaniard who won it. As far as they were concerned, it was the best man who won the race."

What was really awesome, says Leonard, is that back in Victoria, kids were watching and asking themselves, "Why not me?"

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