AUGUSTA • Most of the best professional cyclists bypassed Missouri this year. The cancellation of the Tour of Missouri gave them no reason to come.
The lone exception is Ryder Hesjedal, who rides for Garmin-Transitions and is ranked sixth in the world. He came back for love.
Hesjedal is engaged to Ashley Hofer, a graduate of McCluer. They plan to wed here next Christmas. For the past week, he spent time meeting the parents, the grandparents, the fourth cousins and the neighbors and relaxing at the Apple Gate Inn, owned by Hofer's parents, Lynn and Bob, right next to the Katy Trail and the best — some would say most dangerous — cycling roads in the area.
A native of Victoria, British Columbia, Hesjedal turned heads with a series of stellar cycling performances this season: Second in the Amstel Gold race, first in the final stage of the Tour of California, seventh overall in the Tour de France and third in last weekend's Grand Prix de Montreal.
Hofer turned Hesjedal's head. Repeatedly. The two first crossed paths in 2007, when Hesjedal rode for the HealthNet team at the Tour of Missouri. A senior at Missouri, Hofer was working on the race's economic impact study, which the university conducted.
"I saw her the next to last day at the finish," he said. "She was hard to forget. I asked, 'Where has she been all week?'"
Hofer confessed that she didn't even notice him. "There were so many riders, but there were so few women, so I guess I stood out," she said.
Hesjedal tried a more direct approach when they next met a year later. She had graduated and worked for Samuel Adams in Boulder, Colo. His new team, Garmin, was based there. She reconnected with acquaintances from the Tour of Missouri at a Garmin team camp.
"He came up to me and said, 'You're so beautiful,'" she said. "I was impressed, but I didn't have time to have my heart broken."
Hesjedal was headed to Europe; Hofer was trying to establish her career. But fate seemed to slap her upside the head in August 2009. Hofer was on vacation in Girona, Spain. Hesjedal had just returned to his home in Girona after the Tour de France, in which he finished 44th. She was sitting at a cafe outside the cathedral when he came riding down the street on his bike.
"I pretended he wasn't there, but I could feel him watching me," she said. "I finally turned to see if he was still looking, and he gave this little wave. I was thinking, 'I'm done for.' The time was perfect."
He invited her on a picnic. She said yes. Two weeks later, she gave Samuel Adams one month's notice. With a wink and a nudge to Hesjedal, Hofer said his season "definitely picked up" after her arrival. He gave the notion a shrug of shoulders, but verified that he finished fifth in Classica San Sebastian, then won a stage in the Tour of Spain. Hesjedal also acknowledged that momentum from those late-season races propelled him into this season, through which he has produced a string of impressive performances.
Hesjedal said he was proudest of finishing second in the Amstel Gold, perhaps the most prestigious one-day race in the cycling crazy Netherlands, and his fourth-place finish on stage 17 of the Tour de France. The stage finished atop the famed Tourmalet, the Tour's highest point.
The only riders ahead of him were Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck, who eventually finished first and second overall, and Joachim Rodriguez, who "rode on my wheel most of the way. I was asking him to help but he was on the limit. Then, he passes me in the last 100 meters," Hesjedal said, disappointment lingering 2½ months after the fact.
He beat many of the riders considered superior climbers, including Olympic champion Samuel Sanchez, former Tour of Italy and Spain winner Denis Menchov and seven time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong.
"It was about getting respect from your peers," he said. "I think I earned it that day."
The icing on this cake of a season came last weekend, when he finished third in the Grand Prix de Montreal. In doing so, he lived up to a nickname his Garmin teammates gave him in jest last year: Weight of a Nation.
Though he appeared relieved when he was introduced to the crowd after the race, he said, "It was more overcoming fear of not being good enough. To have pulled off a podium finish in my home country is about as good as it gets."
He has just one race remaining, Sunday in Toronto, then will visit Victoria, Las Vegas and Maui, where he will host a cycling camp in December. Though the visit here was designed to be social and recuperative, Hesjedal also took time for two causes near and dear: youth cycling and open roads.
After the Tour de France, he started a foundation called Wheelmen Ride Bicycles, devoted to developing young cyclists.
"From what I was able to do at the Tour, I thought I could make people aware of causes that were important to me," he said. "I had the opportunity to ride all the way to the pros. I want to help other young riders do that. I see a lot of myself in them."
Though the foundation is headquartered in Victoria, he extended its mission to St. Charles Country, where he rode with a half-dozen members of the Lindenwood University cycling team. The group gave him a team jersey then pedaled off through the hills, Hesjedal bringing up the rear.
"This pretty much tops anything I've done yet," said Travis Finan, a freshman on the team who works at Katy Bike Rental. The shop's owners, Todd and Robin White, are friends with Hofer's mother, Lynn, and helped set up the ride.
Traversing the hills of St. Charles County also thrust Hesjedal unwittingly into the controversy over attempts to ban or limit cyclists on the roads. Hesjedal's route included portions of Highway 94 that would be affected, though he declared the road wider and safer than many he trained on as a youngster near Victoria.
"The whole thing seems a bit off," he said. "People have to be understanding of each other. Is it really that much to ask to slow down and use a little common sense?"