On May 27, cyclist Ryder Hesjedal, 31, won the prestigious Giro d’Italia—the first Canadian to claim one of cycling’s three Grand Tour events, which include the Tour de France and the Vuelta a España. The Victoria native entered the race’s final stage trailing Joaquin Rodriguez by 31 seconds, but after powering through the individual time trial in Milan, he finished with a total time of 91 hours, 39 minutes and two seconds, to claim the title.
“It took a combination of skill, technology, tactics and physiology to get that result,” says Jacques Landry, high performance director of the Canadian Cycling Association. Here, the science of Hesjedal’s incredible win.
Hesjedal’s bike, from Canadian company Cervélo, “is one of the fastest bikes around,” Landry says. It has electronic gear shifting, and a control panel on the handlebars that shows the watts Hesjedal produces with each pedal stroke. Everything the cyclist wears, from clothing to helmet, is designed to be aerodynamic. “In a race, every microsecond counts,” so the equipment is crucial.
“Ryder doesn’t put himself in compromising positions unless he has to,” Landry says. “He knows when to put on the gas, and when to sit back.” Near the end of Saturday’s gruelling climb, Hesjedal moved to the front and managed to drop some opponents. “Had he not been conservative earlier, he might not have had the energy.”
Hesjedal’s lung capacity is reportedly four times that of a normal person—thanks to rigorous training and a background in cross-country mountain biking. “It’s a shorter race, but it’s very intense,” Landry says. “You ‘red-line’ it for about two hours” per event. What does “red-lining” it mean? “It’s your aerobic threshold. If you were to go over that line, you’d blow up.”
Thanks to genetics, muscles of top endurance cyclists have more “slow twitch fibres,” Landry says, which enable these athletes to go “very hard for very long, but not necessarily very fast.” Hesjedal is a “fairly complete cyclist,” but he’s not known for his sprinting. Slow twitch muscle fibres help account for his stamina.
At six foot, two inches, Hesjedal’s height is both “an advantage and a disadvantage,” says Landry. “When you’re tall, there’s more wind resistance. But you do have longer levers. On the flats, you get as low as possible. You’ll be faster than a smaller person with less muscle mass.” Mighty thigh muscles helped Hesjedal blast through Sunday’s time trial.