His teammates laughingly called him Weight of a Nation — a nickname that, in retrospect, doesn’t sound like much of a joke.
Ryder Hesjedal is no Lance Armstrong, prickly, tightly wound, self-centred. Instead, the 32-year-old has always come across as easy-going, accommodating if a little quiet, yet keenly aware and proud of his role in elevating Canadian cycling.
So, yes, those who know him say carrying around the secret of his doping past must have been a heavy burden.
Canada’s best-known cyclist acknowledged Wednesday that for a brief period over a decade ago he “chose the wrong path.”
It was a hasty response to a new book by disgraced Danish cyclist Michael Rasmussen, who revealed how he taught Hesjedal to use EPO — blood doping — in 2003 when the Victorian was a young mountain biker.
But Hesjedal is no Bill Clinton, confessing only when caught with his pants around his ankles. Without the rest of us knowing about it, the cyclist came clean to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport a year ago. The U.S. agency issued a statement Wednesday praising him for doing so.
Hesjedal could have helped his own cause by going public at that time, but as his stature grew, he only had further to fall.
That leads to the obvious question: Was Hesjedal clean when he won the Giro?
Probably, and here’s why: Since 2008 he has raced for, and followed the rigorous drug-testing protocol of, a team that is almost evangelical in its anti-doping stance.
Slipstream Sport’s Garmin team was the creation of ex-doper Jonathan Vaughters, a one-time teammate of Armstrong. Sickened by the cheating, he wanted to run a visibly clean team, one that could show the rest of the cycling world that you didn’t need to ride juiced to win.
Vaughters welcomed confessed cheaters on his squad, as long as they did a Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus turnaround and swore off their wicked ways.
Several of those Garmin riders paid the price for their pasts when they testified against Armstrong, implicating themselves in the process. Tom Danielson, David Zabriskie and Christian Vande Velde were all suspended by the USADA last October after confessing to pre-Garmin drug use.
The cynics who don’t know Hesjedal will just shrug, smirk and say they knew he was dirty all along — and with cycling’s reputation, who can blame them? His friends, though, looked as though they had been hit by a bus after the story came out.
Victoria’s Troy Woodburn has known Hesjedal since high school, raced against him, was with him as a bike mechanic at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
“It’s definitely a shock,” he said of the revelations.
Woodburn remembers how frustrating it was for a young Hesjedal to finish second to known cheats, fading at the end of races as drug-powered legs overtook him. Maybe it finally got to him in a brief, regrettable period of weakness.
Carrying the secret for a decade must have weighed heavily, Woodburn said. “I know that was sitting bad.”
It must have been hard to walk around with a burden that great, and on feet of clay.
Jack Knox, Kamloops born and raised, writes for the Victoria Times Colonist.