Friday, June 1, 2012

Big Canadians

One bonus of this year’s Giro coverage on U.S. television, for me anyway, is that I think I’ve finally figured how to pronounce “Hesjedal.” Until a few weeks ago, I had just sort of guessed that the three syllable approach was the way to go: Hes-je-dal. (Like the only other Norwegian name I thought I knew how to say: Thor Heyerdal.) Then I noticed the American announcers went with a two syllable pronunciation: Hezh-dal. I assume they must know, that they checked with Ryder himself, so I’ve decided to make the switch.  It’s taking me a while to get used to that shorter “zh” version, but I have to say that I kind of like it. It makes a name that’s pretty weird to start with sound even more exotic, slightly Russian somehow. In fact, I’m thinking of changing my own handle to Jazper Gates—sounds more Euro-chic.

Surprisingly, Hezhdal’s first name hasn’t gotten much attention. Perhaps it’s too obvious to even mention, but talk about your nominative determinism. How could you grow up with a first name like Ryder and not become a cyclist? (I suppose it was either that or jockey or rodeo bronc buster.) 

As the Giro wore on, those same American tv announcers took to calling the surging Hezhdal “the Big Canadian” or “the Tall Canadian,” a reference to his 6’2” frame, which in the world of cycling qualifies him as Andre the Giant on wheels. Such nicknames, whether entirely apt or not, have long been a big part of bike racing tradition. Think Eddy “The Cannibal” Merckx or Bernard “The Badger” Henault. Compared to those menacing nicknames, “The Big Canadian” sounds rather lame (though I admit there’s little menacing about Hesjedal’s personality). A cannibal or badger might bite your nuts off, but a “Big Canuck”? What was he going to do to Rodriguez, sit on him? (That move did work quite well for Andre the Giant over the years.)

Apparently the Garmin-Barracuda nickname for Hesjedal was “Weight of a Nation”; before the Giro was over, the team website was selling t-shirts with the phrase. The joke is that since there are so few Canuck cyclists racing professionally in Europe, all of this country’s hopes were on the back of just one rider, or make that Ryder. This nickname was surely ironic, for the accumulated weight of Canadian cycling fans’ hopes couldn’t have amounted to much.

Professional cycling just isn’t a big deal in this country, except for a very small number of zealots. After Hesjedal’s Giro victory, it was kind of comical to see mainstream Canadian newspapers and tv networks attempt to get excited about the achievement and explain its significance to a proud but puzzled audience. There was a vague sense that Hesjedal had done something special, but no one at TSN Sportscentre seemed to know quite what, how, or why. In Canadian sports media, road cycling news tends to get lumped in with the cricket scores and race walking results under the “Sports Briefs” column. Cycling is seen by many here as a one of those mysterious Euro sports, like soccer or bobsledding, full of “colorful” traditions. For most red-blooded, hockey-loving Canadian sports fans, it’s hard to imagine the getting the winner of an event to wear a pink jersey—sounds more like something you’d make the loser do. 

The Fenwick Flash
Perhaps a more apt spin on Hezhdal’s nickname, however, is “Wait of a Nation.” It’s been over twenty years since the small but avid band of Canadian men’s road-cycling fans have had a genuine GC contender to cheer for. When Steve Bauer, aka “The Fenwick Flash,” was in his prime, racing for La Vie Claire and 7-Eleven in the 1980s, I was a teenager growing up in the same part of southern Ontario that Bauer hailed from. (It was a perfectly Canadian sports name—Bauer is also the name of a major hockey equipment manufacturer.) I was just learning about bike racing, and I’d saved up my grass-cutting money to buy a shiny Bianchi road bike. My friend Will and I would cruise along the country roads that Bauer grew up riding on in Fenwick, Fonthill, and Effingham, and we’d talk about the Tour de France, the latest updates in the newspaper, and how Bauer had worn the yellow jersey. We didn’t race (except against each other), but we were budding fans of racing. As kids are wont to do, we’d pretend to be our cycling heroes of the day, each claiming the identity our favorite rider. Will, the son of Irish immigrants, was Sean Kelly. I, of course, was Bauer. Never mind that we didn’t really know anything about bike racing. We just rode and rode and dreamed of being fast. So for me—and I suspect some others of my vintage—there will always be a certain magic in the name “Steve Bauer.” 

After watching Ryder on tv last weekend, we were fired up around here in the Gates household. On Sunday afternoon, after the fist-bumping and yee-hawing subsided, my 11-year-old son suggested he and I take our road bikes out for a spin. This was a bit unusual. Ever since he discovered the wonders of mountain biking, my son has left his road bike to gather dust in the basement. (I get this.) But I suspect that after watching Ryder, he felt inspired. And, really, after catching parts of the race or hearing the news, what Canadian cyclist didn’t want to throw a leg over the old Norco and find a steep hill to charge up? On our short ride, my son took the lead, pushing the pace in a way that caught me sitting back on my saddle. He didn’t actually say “I’m Hesjedal!” But I’m sure he imagined it. You don’t always have to say a name out loud to feel some of its power.

I’d venture that for Canadian cycling fans of all ages, the name “Ryder Hesjedal” now has a bit of magic about it too—no matter how you pronounce it.


  1. I wonder if there's a way of finding a photo of the front-thong wearing Italian who briefly held the lead the last day of the Giro and adding it to this post.

    I think I heard both of the Jasper juniors whispering something about Hesjedahl in their sleeps last night.

  2. Fenwick Flash--huh? What about the Finnish Flash?


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