LONDON – Ryder Hesjedal finished 63rd in the Olympic men’s cycling road race Saturday, but it could have been worse. He could have hit a dog. He could have run into a fan with a camera and flown into the crowd. He could have crashed, dodged more disaster, changed tires, changed bikes and changed bikes again, like American Christopher Horner, who said he couldn’t imagine how many times he almost died on the way to 93rd place.
This was a disappointment for Hesjedal, who became the first Canadian to win a Grand Tour event when he took the Giro d’Italia this year. And this was a disappointment for Great Britain, which hoped its all-star team – including Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins and runner-up Christopher Froome – would spring the great sprinter Mark Cavendish to victory on The Mall with Buckingham Palace as the backdrop.
But this was a crazy race in an insane environment, and not everything went as expected - not everything was under a rider’s control.
"It’s not like a video game,'' Hesjedal said. "You don’t just press a button and say, ‘I want to go in the front now.’ You’re out there pedaling for almost six hours. You have to have a plan and an idea and then stick to it. … I rode conservatively, kind of put it all on the end. It didn’t work out.''
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Cycling is suddenly surging here because of Cavendish’s success and Wiggins’ Tour victory, the first for Great Britain, and now here came the Olympics to London – and here came the first full day of competition, at that. Hundreds of thousands of spectators lined the course in the city and countryside, waving flags, cheering.
"I overheard someone saying it was the largest stadium in the world, and I think I had to agree with that,'' said Canadian coach Gord Fraser. "I’ve never seen anything like it.''
Which was excellent, except for the fact that the roads were often narrow and winding, and some of the fans were too enthusiastic, creeping too far onto the course in spots and causing chaos at times.
"You saw the guy wanting that perfect picture two feet farther out in the road,'' Horner said. "One rider hit him dead on. I saw the rider went flying through the middle of the field, which, of course, took out 20 riders. And the fan went flying into the spectators and took out a bunch of spectators himself.''
Told a dog had run onto the course, too, Horner said: "Oh, geezus. I didn’t see the dog.''
Now add another ingredient: that the Brits drive on the left side of the road with the steering wheels on the right, while most drivers of the support vehicles are used to the opposite. Cars were stopping on the wrong side. Doors were opened into traffic. Horner missed one by inches humming along at 80 kph.
"I’ve never been in a caravan more dangerous in my entire career, and I mean extremely dangerous," Horner said.
The Brits controlled most of the race, working together as a team, leading the peloton at a stiff pace. They let a group break away, but the idea was to keep them in striking distance and keep the rest of the group together, pulling Cavendish through the hills, setting him up for a sprint to the finish. The strategy had worked at the world championships and the Tour.
Problem was, everyone knew that.
"The biggest plot before the race was how to bust up Great Britain, not bring Cavendish to the line,'' Fraser said. "It’s pretty cool a lot of countries wanted to take that team on and not roll over.''
Hesjedal hadn’t raced since crashing during the Tour and leaving with leg injuries. He had no teammates to support him, either, because he was the only Canadian who qualified.
The way the Brits were riding, he figured it would be a waste of energy to attack too early. So he saved his juice and stayed in the peloton, hoping the Brits would reel in the lead group and something would open up late.
But little by little, other riders joined the lead group until it was 30-strong, and the Brits never could reel them in. Nothing ever opened up. Hesjedal said he didn’t know where that moment was when he should have made his move.
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"I just missed out at the end there,'' Hesjedal said. "It was hard to kind of read what was going on.''
"There’s so much sensory overload with how many people were there and how tight it was and all the extra stuff,'' Fraser said. "I’ve never seen a race course with this type of environment. It was over the top. What I’m trying to get at is, it’s tough for an athlete to maybe be alert. Maybe that’s the reason why a group of 32 got up the road without Ryder.''
This was a disappointment for Hesjedal, but he didn’t seem that disappointed. This was not the Giro d’Italia. In cycling, where they have multi-stage marathons, a one-day, 249.5-kilometre race is a crapshoot.
And 63rd place is a little deceiving. As Ricky Bobby once said, if you’re not first – or second or third, this being the Olympics – you’re last. Hesjedal was not going to sprint to the finish just to look good.
The Brits didn’t, either. After Kazakhstan’s Alexander Vinokourov, 38 years young on this day, took gold, Cavendish coasted in at 29th, Wiggins at 103rd. Froome flamed out at 109th.
"What happens when you’re at a bike race, at a certain point you can get resigned to where you’re out,'' Fraser said. "Ryder, as you know, he’s got pretty lofty standards. So coming to the line for 28th place is a little anticlimactic.”
"It just came down to tactics and trying to survive out there by yourself,'' Hesjedal said. "I had to make a decision, and that was it.''
On this day, survival was a victory in itself.
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