Sports

The Pain Principle

Cyclist Ryder Hesjedal is one of the best athletes in Canada. Can he suffer enough to become the best in the world?

From the July/August 2011 magazine
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Photograph by Gaël Turine

It’s an overcast spring day in the middle of Basque Country, Spain, and a thirty-year-old British Columbian named Ryder Hesjedal is near the head of a convoy. Behind him: forty European station wagons, three ambulances, two helicopters, eight cop cars, twelve sedans, nine motorcycles, and 125 bicycles. Of particular concern to my companion in one of the station wagons—a Belgian former cycling champion named Eric Van Lancker, once bigger in his home country than weissebier—is the fact that there are twenty-six bicycles, nineteen sweep motorcycles, and a pace car ahead of Ryder Hesjedal.

On the station wagon’s dash, Van Lancker has tacked two sheets of paper. They differ in content, but are linked thematically. The first is the list of the day’s teams and riders, a compendium of professional cycling’s elite: Leipheimer, Horner, Vinokourov, Klöden, Sánchez, and the Schleck brothers, Andy and Fränk. The second is an expressionist representation of human trauma, which is in fact a herky-jerky profile of the day’s 150-kilometre course. The biggest topographical spike, rising at a 25 percent gradient, is the one Ryder Hesjedal happens to be negotiating right now.

Hesjedal is on the verge of becoming one of cycling’s Brahmins. In 2009, he won a stage of a Grand Tour, the Vuelta a España, something no Canadian has managed for more than twenty years. In 2010, he came second in the Amstel Gold one-day classic, and finished an unexpected (and astonishing) seventh in the Tour de France. Much is expected of him here in Basque Country, or Euskadi, as the local terrorist group calls it.

He is now at the climax of the first stage of the six-day 2011 Vuelta al País Vasco. It is a major event, and a prelude to July’s big show in France. Van Lancker, piloting the station wagon with one hand, watches the race broadcast on a GPS unit mounted on the dash. Hesjedal decides to make a statement: Twenty-fifth place. Then, magically, tenth. Then eighth. Then fifth. He slithers like a tasered garter snake through the knot of cyclists at the top of the hill, hurls himself over the lip, flings his handlebars forward. It’s a minor act of heroism that nevertheless leaves Van Lancker baffled: “Yes,” he says, “but why not start the hill fifth? ”

Moments later, we pull up to the mess of the finish line, in the medieval town of Zumárraga. Somewhere amid a gaggle of cyclists, I catch sight of Hesjedal. He lifts his leg over his bike, hands the machine over to an assistant—and shrugs.

The gesture startles me, because I’ve seen it before. I’m almost physically yanked into a Grand Guignol memory from my childhood, in which I walk into my parents’ sun-dappled bedroom, brought there by screaming. My father lies on a bloody sheet, so badly ripped up that bone glistens white through his skin. Leaning over him, my mother vainly tries to patch the wounds with gauze. Earlier, during a bike race, he had reached for a water bottle. He had misjudged the move, lost control at speed, and slid along the tarmac, tearing up his left flank. For one brilliant moment, he stops wailing, looks over at me, and hitches his shoulders in a ridiculous, inscrutable shrug.

A circle closes. Everything about cycling is contained in that gesture, including its reigning truism: to race bicycles is to drink greedily from a bottomless chalice of agony. The sport and its heroes are only knowable, and then just barely, once you come to understand that suffering is cycling’s currency. And what that currency buys is the occasional—the very, very occasional—moment of exquisite glory. Mostly, it purchases tough breaks and tougher questions. Much like the one Eric Van Lancker asks of the rider before him. And by “Why not start the hill fifth? ” he is really asking, “Is Ryder Hesjedal willing to suffer completely? ”

Aman from British Columbia finishes top ten in the Tour de France, he should automatically be in the running for Canadian athlete of the year and all the other “best of” accolades handed out to bobsledders and ice dancers and Sidney Crosby. Currently, maddeningly, Ryder Hesjedal is not a star. Cycling, when it isn’t about doping, is SportsCentre filler, something to show right before the Frisbee-catching seal, or the lawn bowling carp. Canada has had bicycling royalty before (Steve Bauer, who finished fourth in the 1988 Tour de France), and we have a stable of excellent riders now: Svein Tuft, Michael Barry, and Andrew Randell. And yet Canucks Zamboni drivers enjoy greater name recognition.

I first properly meet Hesjedal on the day after his hill-climbing caper, at the start of stage two in Zumárraga. He is leaving a camper belonging to Garmin-Cervélo, the American race team managed by former Lance Armstrong teammate and anti-doping crusader Jonathan Vaughters. Ordinarily, Garmin would be travelling with a decal-covered tour bus, the likes of which the nineteen other teams have parked pell-mell across Zumárraga’s tight centrum. The bus, however, is in the shop, and the camper gives Garmin an aw-shucks, underdog mien—misleading, considering the team’s status as one of cycling’s most successful outfits.

If you didn’t know that Ryder Hesjedal’s name was Ryder Hesjedal, you’d call him something similarly Nordic, like Sven Järgvesson or Bjorn Flüghorn. It’s easy to imagine him with braids, wearing elk fur. If you didn’t know he was from British Columbia, you’d probably assume he was from the West Coast. Even in cycling cleats, he lopes, surfer-style. In his racing kit, he is lean and tall and comes to a point at his extremities, like Jack Kirby’s early illustrations of Mr. Fantastic. His torso is absurdly long, and a lifetime spent on bicycles has warped his body to the point that he is no longer capable of standing upright. In profile, his body forms a subtle, curving S, while his shoulders look wide and mock strong. (Cyclists, like velociraptors, are unburdened by upper body strength.)

I ask how he’s doing. “I’m feeling good,” he says. “The sun is shining in Basque Country.” He swirls a dark liquid around in a small plastic cup: “Just a little caffeine. And then a bike race.”

The first thing you notice about professional cyclists is that, with few exceptions, they appear to live their internal lives in a heavily padlocked tomb of mental anguish. They are at once astonishingly young and improbably ancient, a result of the fact that they are paid for their agony. They are modern-day ascetics, working in the open-air monastery of the mountains of Europe, with helmets as tonsures, spandex as robes.

There is thus a detachment in their manner that suggests the real world—our world—exists to them only as storybook legend, trapped as they are in another realm, with no corollaries, no points of contact, no common ground. They experience their lives through the tiny aperture of cycling; the aperture is so small because the light is so fierce. They have felt and done things on the farthest shore of the possible.

Professional cycling is the toughest sport legally practised in the developed world—and by a long shot. It’s tempting to bevel that statement by acknowledging the very real hardships of the NHL, the NFL, or the UFC, but that just seems pointless, especially after observing a routine Grand Tour crash, in which an athlete wearing little more than a leotard hits asphalt at sixty kilometres an hour, leaving a slick of epidermis in his wake. (As I write this, the cycling world is mourning the young Belgian Wouter Weylandt, who died in a crash on May 9 during the third stage of the 2011 Giro d’Italia.) Concussions, paralysis, lower back pain, saddle sores, mouth dryness, chafing—all of the above. And while this puts cycling at least on par with contact sports in terms of violent physical duress, it is resolutely not what makes cycling exponentially more difficult.

No other sport demands the same time, pain, and work ethic. You cannot race a Grand Tour without being in supreme physical shape, so fit that you are actually eating yourself, and must consume the same amount of food and liquid as nearly three grown men—which amounts to about 6,000 calories a day—to stay alive. During a warm weather race, a cyclist will lose three kilograms, and must chug five litres of restorative liquid, or it’s game over. (Try that twenty-one days in a row.) Cycling doesn’t have a bench. It doesn’t have time outs. The boys don’t celebrate a good day’s racing at a Hennessy-sponsored nightclub.

A cycling team’s hotel floor looks like a geriatric ward: men lie prostrate on beds, pink feet pointing skyward. The hallway smells like baby shit, the eau de cologne of the endurance athlete—a day’s worth of fluid, food, and endorphins rinsed noisomely through the system. A cyclist gets up, eats, goes to the race, eats, races, eats while racing, eats once finished, returns to the hotel, eats, gets a massage, eats a lot, sleeps. There’s no outward sign that he is one of the best athletes on earth. If you came across him shopping for a Billy bookcase at IKEA, you’d assume he had just returned from an island survival challenge, which he lost. Badly.

The one thing all the statistics and studies and scientific assessments can’t deliver is cycling’s great intangible. By this I mean the transformation of agony into fuel, an alchemic process that is supernatural in its properties. For instance, to climb a fifteen-kilometre mountain pass at an average grade of 10 percent and a mean speed of twenty-five kilometres an hour is to sustain almost forty minutes of screaming pain without a second’s respite. The reward for being the best isn’t that one takes less pain; rather that one is able to absorb more. The nature of this process is revealed at the precise instant that we come to know ourselves completely: we learn how far we can push ourselves, and the true mettle of our character. But that knowledge isn’t properly intelligible, nor is it transferable. To mangle Laurie Anderson’s aphorism, writing about cycling’s meta-state is like dancing about architecture. It is a private knowledge, forged in pain’s stables, and belongs to men who are not served by articulating it.

All of which might explain the gravitas that blurs the edges of Ryder Hesjedal’s obviously sunny nature. It might explain why he can, at times, seem like a husk. Outside the Garmin camper, he takes a slow sip of his coffee, swirls the cup a bit more, tosses it into the garbage. I ask if he’s feeling yesterday in his legs.

“Nah, yesterday was fine. Had a good rest.” He slowly swings a leg up and over the frame’s top tube and clicks into his machine. “Be seeing you.” He rides off, and finishes fifth.

Aday later, I sit across from Hesjedal in my hotel room. He has just enjoyed a massage—which is to say his body has been viciously tenderized—and is on his way to dinner. (Watching food disappear into a cyclist’s maw is hilarious and awe inspiring and slightly nauseating.) I’m looking for something in his features—some flicker of the human. But his face is just sunburn over ashen skin, cold cuts on top of bone. On the third day of a Grand Tour in the Biscayne mountains, a cyclist’s face is not a face. The gentle frissons, those little signs we rely on to navigate our social relationships, are entirely absent.

“We grew up the real way,” Hesjedal says, telling me of life in the Highlands, outside Victoria, in the recession-plagued ’80s. “My dad didn’t have it so good at first; he cut and sold firewood. We got by.” When he and his sister were of school age, his father got a job with the municipality, and his mother followed. But those first years were hard: “My dad taught me that work ethic is important. It’s everything.”

Professional cycling has always been a working-class sport. Or, to put it the way the lefties used to, professional cycling has always exploited the working class: the French Red press in the ’20s famously described racers as forçats de la route—forced labourers of the road. Hesjedal very much falls into this working man archetype. (Its opposite, the aristocratic tradition, is exemplified by five-time Tour de France winner Jacques Anquetil, who, despite a humble upbringing, mimicked debauched eighteenth-century courtiers by, among other things, sleeping with his stepdaughter.) Hesjedal is defined by work. By focus. “I remember being in my basement, playing ball sports,” he says. “We had this half-wood, half-concrete wall. I’d take a lacrosse set and just whip the ball against the wall for hours on end. Until it was perfect.”

In the Highlands, everyone rode bicycles. Not like little Ryder Hesjedal did, though. On a heavy Norco Bushpilot, he rode the trails behind his house again and again and again, until he was sure no one in the world could ride them any faster. At thirteen years old, he understood that fun could morph into a vocation: mountain biking was booming; trails and legends were both being carved into the countryside. “That was my ticket,” he says.

“I remember telling my dad, ‘Listen, I need to focus on this.’ ” He was in grade eight at the time, and his father was understandably lukewarm. It didn’t help that his son was displaying some very real aptitude for baseball, a sport that typically pays a rookie second baseman about five times what a mountain biker can expect over the course of his career. Nonetheless Hesjedal and “Team Family” would strap his bike to the car, pack the camping gear, and screech out of the lot after school to make races in Kelowna, in Whistler, all over BC. And then, farther afield. “After World Champs [in Australia], I’d come back to class, and I’d explain what I’d done over the summer,” he says. “Kids were, like, ‘Huh? ’ I felt like it was the best thing. As far as I was concerned, by that time I was probably one of the best in the world. It’s important to have that confidence and identity when you’re that young.”

Backed by a local enthusiast named David Smith, Hesjedal landed his first sponsorship deal with Marin bicycles when he was fifteen, and experienced the following decade through the fog of mountain bike racing. No late-night spliffs with the boys. No chasing girls. When two airliners slammed into the Twin Towers, he was at the world championships in Vail, Colorado. He was a fixture on the international circuit by the time he was seventeen, one of the best in the world by the time he was twenty—and burning out by the time he was twenty-three.

Imagine, for a moment, that you’re at the start line of the cross-country race in Athens, for the 2004 Olympics. You’re supremely fit, your entire being focused on this race for months, years. Five minutes in, just as the adrenalin is settling and your legs have started to sing, you feel telltale wheel drag. Flat tire, race over: “I didn’t finish, dropped out of Worlds two weeks later, and I haven’t raced a mountain bike since. For that to become your reality, it was pretty frustrating.”

In 2002, he signed with the road biking team Rabobank as a stagiaire (we’d say “rookie”) for the off-season. Most off-road racers spend a large portion of their time on the road, to build up overall endurance. Only a small few end up making the transition to road racing. Europe, home of the Grand Tours, was now in his blood. The physical demands were so enormous, the commitment so utter, that road racing became a magnet for his unshakable focus. He had suffered on the mountain bike, but he hadn’t suffered ecstatically. It was time to be swallowed whole.

When his Rabobank contract ended, in 2003, he signed with the world’s foremost racing team, US Postal Service. Postal was Lance Armstrong’s outfit, and it basically existed to deliver him a sixth straight Tour de France victory. Hesjedal rode as a domestique, the teammate who must sacrifice himself, race after race, so that the lead rider may win. Prime cannon fodder, the domestique limits the lead rider’s exposure to headwinds; he goes back to the car for bottles or food; he jostles with rivals in the tightly packed field to protect his leader. Hesjedal was now bottom dog on a team jammed with elite cyclists, all of whom had the podium in their crosshairs.

Like every domestique, he’d get late calls after a long day on the bike to race the following day on the other side of Europe. The work was unrelenting, soul breaking, and meanwhile cycling was being rocked by doping scandal after doping scandal, of which Lance Armstrong’s teams were often the fulcrum. Hesjedal’s vaunted focus was meaningless. He was not in control; he was floundering.

There is no proper way to watch a bike race. Not as a spectator along the side of the road, not in a follow car, and certainly not on TV, thrilling as all these may be. Perhaps one day we’ll invent a medium that will do the job, a 4-D mind-melding tech that marries the cyclist’s experience with that of the support team. Until then, it helps to keep in mind that the hundreds of vehicles behind the peloton (the main, regimented bunch of racers) form a shadow peloton, an obbligato that builds, over the course of the race, to its own Wagnerian crescendo. In a major race like the País Vasco, the peloton’s average speed seems only mildly insane—forty-five kilometres an hour or so—but the cyclists descend at speeds in excess of ninety kilometres, down mountain passes that were scraped out in the Dark Ages for mule trains. A professional cyclist will take a switchback at almost seventy kilometres an hour, which is nearly impossible for a car, unless that car happens to be piloted by a former pro cyclist, or a rally driver. Once you’ve sat in one of the hundred or so vehicles descending picturesque European mountain roads in convoy at highway speeds, you begin to grasp the vast, interlocking machinery of a bike race.

On the País Vasco’s fourth day, I hop inside Garmin-Cervélo’s first follow car, driven by the team’s directeur sportif, Bingen Fernández. Long of nose, high of forehead, Fernández looks as if he was designed in a wind tunnel. He is a Basque ex-pro from a hamlet outside Gernika. “At the Tour de France, they always say their food is the best,” he tells me. “Pah! Their pasta is like soup.”

Garmin-Cervélo, with Europe as its theatre, commands eleven Skoda station wagons, two eighteen-wheeler mobile mechanic shops, two tour buses, dozens of soigneurs (assistants) and mechanics, and hundreds of premium Cervélo cycling machines. According to Fernández, their team budget is around eight million euros a year; Team Radioshack peaks out at around fifteen million. (“It is, like, one football player,” he says with a shrug.) On the morning of the fourth stage, in a team meeting similar to nineteen other concurrent team meetings, he laid out the day’s strategy to his racers, all of whom would be working to get Hesjedal to the finish line first. The poor souls have to do what Hesjedal did at the start of his career for Postal: minimize the amount of unnecessary work he does on the road so he can concentrate on attacking or fending off an attack, and either win the race or enhance his place in the overall standings—or both.

Three hours into the race, Fernández and I tear down a broad boulevard alongside a wall of rotting industry, and the peloton looks like a Miró mural, should you pass by one in an F-18. The cars roll into the bikes roll into the helicopters roll into one hysterically coloured, mechanized mash-up. Fernández steers the car with one hand, and spits a polyglot stream of instructions into a CB. Each cyclist carries a two-way radio that enables him to communicate with both the car and the other riders—an innovation the International Cycling Union (or UCI, which runs the professional circuit) has banned in several races this season. The race started shortly after one p.m.; it will last upwards of four hours, and on this day cover 179 kilometres of monstrously hilly terrain.

Ahead of us, I spot Hesjedal. He possesses a liquid quality: the curvature of his body moves with the road; Garmin’s chiropractor calls this “hypermobility.” His back arcs up in a gentle, aerodynamic curve; his long neck juts out; and his head drops twelve centimetres or so below the peak of the arc. He doesn’t fight the atmosphere like the incomparable Eddy Merckx, who cut through mountains like a uranium-tipped buzz saw. Hesjedal has souplesse—suppleness. It’s heroism with no outward sign of the heroic. It’s taking a bayonet jab in the spleen and apologizing for the damage done to the uniform.

Fernández, meanwhile, is like an orchestra conductor. He has the sheet music in front of him, in the form of that topographic profile of pain, but he is waiting for a sonic moment he knows in his bones will make the correct tone. He has been holding Garmin back for the first half of the race, building the tension, until it hits a particular ascending line on the profile. “You need to be in front here,” he says into the radio. “Allez, guys. Move up. Go, go, go!”

The peloton blows through a broad two-lane stretch of highway that precedes the final climb. Vehicles round one another to deliver the final few water bottles of the day. A Garmin domestique named Dan drops back and pulls level with the car. A soigneur in the back seat hands bottles to Fernández, who now places each one firmly in Dan’s hand, who in turn stuffs them into his shirt. In front of us, a rider on the Movistar team slams into the tarmac, bone and carbon fibre making a hollow, basso thunk. Dan hits his brakes, pushes off from the car, rounds the crash, and pulls back up to the window. “Two more,” says Fernández. “Okay, allez!” Dan is catapulted back into the peloton.

“Dan with service,” says Fernández into the radio, as if he’s sending up a tray of canapés. “Now the stress starts.”

The final climb winds up along a harsh slice of hill face. The race chopper drifts in the mist above a patchwork of farmland that stretches before a rumpled massif. On one side of the road, pines in deep shadow, sending wafts of moist, cool air onto the tarmac. On the other, a steep drop to a faraway gorge. Birches cling to the embankment, strung with ivy. The valley, lit up in the early gloaming, is flaked with a miraculous pollen squall.

The peloton shatters on the climb. The hill is lined four deep with spectators, un-sober and undressed, some wearing only the Euskadi flag. The Garmin domestiques, along with those from other teams, have dropped back—hara-kiri duly performed. Riders are smeared along the length of the hill. Fernández roars around them and closes in on Hesjedal in the breakaway group of eight. We spin around a hairpin turn, and we’re suddenly high above the valley floor. We rocket down, entering the town under the imposing concrete arch of a new highway. Then more highways, until we reach Eibar, its buildings on stilts, like a parched Venice.

“C’mon, Ryder, eh, Ryder. C’mon. Allez, allez!” says Fernández into the radio. Hesjedal is now in the middle of the group on a small breakaway. He inches forward. “Allez!” says Fernández. “We have to be aggressive here—we have to be first into the turn!” But the other racers claw back the tarmac. Hesjedal stretches like a Hollywood special effect, bridges the gap, and then is overtaken. “C’mon, allez!” But Fernández’s voice has lost its urgency. It’s another fifth-place finish.

“I’m getting frustrated with fifth,” Hesjedal tells me that night.

Consider, for a moment, the viciousness of evolution. Hesjedal and I are picturing the changes to his body, between, say, 2002 and 2010. Years of riding and training see his physique squeeze, bend, warp. We watch the saddle rise on his Cervélo R3 racing machine; we see his handlebar stem extend, so he drops lower, becomes more streamlined. He is leaner, he is longer—a road racer’s posture, not a trail rider’s. He is not comfortable in any meaningful sense of the term, but rather optimally positioned, working the centimetres down to millimetres with different mechanics over successive years. Bones rearrange themselves, cartilage melts away, organs scurry for space.

His body changed; so did his mind. “With Postal, I was thrown into the deep end,” he says. He doesn’t say so, but that team, which became Discovery, was mired nose deep in the poisonous culture that has come to define cycling. Indeed, the history of the sport doubles as a history of illegal performance enhancement. From cocaine to poppers to steroids to erythropoietin; as medical science delivered wonder drug after miracle cure, cyclists jacked them into their bodies to gain even the slightest advantage. Barry Bonds juices, and he hits a baseball farther, with greater ease. A cyclist dopes, and it allows him to race faster, which means harder, which means a few extra slices of agony on his already unpalatable pain sandwich. He suffers more, and he suffers better. Doping is a porthole into greater pain, which is both the sport’s essence and its undoing. Most tragic of all, cycling’s dopers weren’t the weak-kneed wannabes and under-talented hopefuls. They were the toughest men in sport, and the best athletes in the world.

For the past three cycling generations, doping has been equated with masculinity, with cojones. It culminated (but did not stop) with Operación Puerto, a massive Spanish doping investigation begun in 2006 that pulled in dozens of cyclists, several of them once affiliated with US Postal/Discovery. Hesjedal was not implicated, yet in some ways his situation would only worsen. In 2006, he joined Phonak, a team that made the rest of the field look clean by comparison.

He downplays the Phonak disgrace as “the stuff that happens in this sport,” but Phonak was not merely rotten; it was corrupt to the core. Most of the team’s marquee names were banned and stripped of their titles and medals. Tyler Hamilton’s 2004 Olympic gold will forever be rubbished in light of test results that suggested blood doping. Santi Pérez was nailed during testing at UCI headquarters in Lausanne; 1998 world champ Oscar Camenzind was busted just before the Athens Games. And Floyd Landis’s victory in the 2006 Tour de France—the result of an inhuman feat of physicality in which he broke away on the race’s toughest mountain stage and finished an impossible six minutes ahead of the field—was reversed when tests revealed a heightened level of testosterone.

Phonak exemplified the “asterisks era,” when Bonds and Roger Clemens and Landis and god after human god were knocked from pedestals and podiums, their wins annulled and their records granted speculative status. Andy Rihs, owner of the Swiss hearing aid firm Phonak had this to say when the men he was paying to win races turned out to be cheats: “Think hard before you get involved in cycling, because there are never any guarantees… where there’s money, there’s doping.”

In the wake of the Phonak collapse, Hesjedal left Europe for the States. “It was like going to the minors,” he says. He signed with an American team called Health Net. But Christian Vande Velde, an American superstar who is Garmin-Cervélo’s stalwart veteran presence, points out something critical about that time: “When Ryder went back, he never gave up his apartment in Spain. That takes balls, man. It was a statement.” Hesjedal meant to return to the big leagues, on his own terms. “I just worked hard,” he tells me, “and created the right opportunities for myself. I didn’t sit somewhere cold and rainy in winter and say, ‘I gotta start training soon.’ ”

The right opportunity presented itself in Team Garmin, an outfit started by Jonathan Vaughters, who rode through the worst of the doping crisis; has contorted like a preteen Chinese gymnast around his own compromised record; and was determined to start a clean team—consequences, and potentially poor results, be damned. He gathered a group of untainted and semi-tainted pros, offered them contracts, and built the most stringent anti-doping test program anywhere in professional sport. While every UCI pro cyclist submits to baseline testing, and has a bio-passport with which his frequent test results must be consistent (that is, no bump-up in hemoglobin, which would suggest blood doping, or testosterone levels, which would mean juicing), Garmin riders are subject to an Orwellian program called Adam’s Whereabouts. Like lawyers, they have to account for, and explain, every minute of their existence. Three strikes and you’re out. If a tester shows up at your home and you’re not there to give blood, you’re done.

“I joined Garmin partway through ’08,” Hesjedal says, “and I knew I was part of this team that wanted to make a place for itself. I was up there in races I wasn’t even finishing in other years.” Two thousand nine was a watershed for Vaughters and his Brady Bunch. Perhaps just as significantly for Hesjedal, after the world championships he finally got a chance to spend a spell of time with a woman from Missouri he had met in Boulder, Colorado, the previous year. “I had a great off-season with her,” he tells me of his fiancée, Ashley Hofer. “I proposed to her in spring 2010—and that was the first highlight of the year.”

Hofer moved into the apartment in Girona, Spain, that Hesjedal symbolically refused to give up, while he began cashing in on fifteen years of unimaginably hard toil. “Ryder wants to prove that you can work in cycling, do your job in an honest way, and still win,” Hofer tells me. “He wants to show that there are other ways to make yourself win. Your strength, your health, your happiness—all these things can get you to the finish line.”

It’s stage six, the País Vasco’s curtain call. Ryder Hesjedal, dripping sweat, is done. He snaps out of his time trial bike, and gives me the shrug. My father’s shrug. Cycling’s tart aperçu.

Most major races end with a time trial. (The Tour de France climaxes with the sprint on the Champs-Élysées, but the race is really decided on the time trial the day before.) There is something antithetical, almost anti-epic, in this format. It pits the rider, alone, against the clock. Conventional time is meaningless in a bike race, because the pain twists seconds into minutes and minutes into infinite loop-de-loops of nothingness. The objective is just to go faster than the other guy; there is no clock to beat. In this, the time trial is the element of the Grand Tour that most distances spectator from cyclist. The former is watching the clock of the conventional universe. The latter—although bound to that convention if he hopes to mount the podium—leaves convention behind the moment he rolls onto the tarmac.

Hesjedal leaves fifth from last. A one-minute interval separates the departing cyclists. The course takes a false flat up to a nasty climb, down a technical descent, followed by a long, serpentine piece of road up to a downhill, and then two windblown straightaways. It is twenty-four kilometres long. It must be ridden in the sweet spot between consistently moderated effort and puking up your guts.

They are so small out there, with no peloton. Just the rider, crouched over his time trial bike, pace motorcycle in front of him, follow car behind. The cyclist wears a tight onesie with a teardrop helmet that looks poured from pure speed; his butt is high on the saddle, his face betraying everything.

Hesjedal leads out strong. On the first turn, he hops his bike into the elbow bend, a mountain biker’s move that shaves off seconds. He races quickly into the first time check, but just as suddenly he is off the leader’s pace. He’s down a minute, and then another thirty seconds. This bumps him back in the overall rankings, but not out of the top ten. He is ninth overall in the País Vasco. With each top ten finish, he makes further claim to a place among the elite. He’ll earn his gilded helmet. But will he win?

Cycling, after all, is the toughest sport in the world. A rider must give up his body to the agonies of pedalling for days and months on end. He must give up other things: his youth, a part of his essential character, the broadness of a lived life, all for the focused brilliance of his sport. But in these certainties, questions remain. If one is “frustrated with fifth,” does this mean one is unwilling to go as far as it is necessary to go, into the grey areas where Adam’s Whereabouts doesn’t peek? One can be forgiven, also, for wondering if winning morally beats winning by any means necessary. In a sport that demands giving everything away, must not one give everything away?

Ryder Hesjedal doesn’t think so. He thinks he can win on his terms, and he is riding to do so. “You have to not be able to do it a hundred times to be able to do it a few times,” he told me the night before, sitting in my room, his face scrubbed with exhaustion. “I’m at the point where I’m riding the best I ever have, and I know it.” He was telling me that he is methodical, not explosive. He is the man who was the boy who whipped a lacrosse ball against a basement wall for hours on end, “until it was perfect.” Process, focus. And an unshakable belief that cycling’s suffering is a form of metaphysical purity, that it must be free from taint. If he’s lucky enough to last, he will come fifth a hundred times. Then, maybe, he’ll come first.

Richard Poplak is the author of The Sheikh’s Batmobile; Ja, No, Man; and Kenk: A Graphic Portrait. He has just published Lance Armstrong Project, an ebook.

Gaël Turine has published several books of photography, including Voodoo (2011).

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