Derek Gee is going through hell and loving it.
The 25-year-old from Ottawa, the lone Canadian rider in the Giro d’Italia, has been a revelation in his first Grand Tour with three second-place finishes and a fourth in the first two weeks for the Israel-Premier Tech team.
Asked if he had expected to make such a splash during the gruelling 21-stage, 3,489.2-kilometre race, Gee admitted he has surprised even himself.
Gee stands 32nd in the general classification standings, 26:01 behind leader Bruno Armirail of France. He also stands second in the points race behind Italy’s Jonathan Milan and seventh in the King of the Mountains classification.
Now he looks to make his mark as the riders head to the Dolomites and a gruelling final week.
Gee was slated to support Domenico Pozzovivo’s general classification campaign but the veteran Italian’s race was cut short when he contracted COVID. Now Gee is leading the team in the GC with Italian teammate Marco Frigo three places behind in 35th.
There is more pain to come.
Three of the last six stages have been given the maximum difficulty rating of five stars, starting Tuesday with the 203-kilometre Stage 16 with 5,200 metres of elevation from Sabbio Chiese to Monte Bondone, including a top-category climb to the finish.
Stages 18 and 19 later in the week feature more mountains.
“It’s pretty cruel,” Gee said cheerfully. “There’s quite a few hard days between now and Rome [where the race ends next Sunday after a time trial in the penultimate stage].
“Although the confidence has been growing throughout this race, it’s still quite a daunting task.”
His goals this week include making a run at the race’s combativity award and securing a stage win. Gee came within half a wheel of catching German Nico Denz in a furious sprint finish Saturday on Stage 14.
The Giro takes a toll. Gee says he is “fully drained” each day when he gets off the bike.
“And that’s a big part of why I think I can look back at three second places and a fourth with very few or no regrets,” he said. “I gave everything out there to try and win a stage in the first two weeks. And missed it but for sure that was everything I had.”
Sam Bewley, Israel-Premier Tech’s sports director, is rooting for Gee to get that elusive stage win.
“He’s been so close … and on hard stages as well. He was fourth on a mountain stage [Stage 13], so he’s shown he can do everything,” he said. “He works hard, he’s polite, he’s respectful of everybody. I’m elated for him again to show how good he is and how strong he is. He deserves [a stage victory], and I think everyone in the peloton probably agrees he deserves it. He’ll keep trying, we know that for sure.
Gee says he had learned about himself on the way.
“The level of confidence I had going in versus now has definitely changed,” he said. “I’ve learned maybe I don’t hate the cold and the rain as much as most. It’s been a massive learning curve, for sure.”
At six foot two and 167 pounds, Gee has also shown he can thrive in the mountains despite his size.
“I think I just have really good legs,” he said. “For sure, when you do high mountains that go over 2,000 metres above sea level and you’re climbing for close to an hour at a time, it definitely favours the guys who are closer to 130 pounds and maybe born in high altitude in Colombia or something like that, but to be up there with climbers like that on one of the high mountain days was far beyond my expectations for that climb. But it was also quite a bit of suffering.”
Gee has been burning through some 6,000 calories some days on the bike.
“I almost haven’t stopped eating since I got here and still the weight is coming down a little bit. It’s very very hard to keep the intake up. And we have some fantastic dietitians on the team and a support staff to make sure that we’re recovering properly and fuelling properly. But it’s hard, for sure.”
“Just 𝙩𝙝𝙞𝙨 𝙢𝙪𝙘𝙝 not strong enough.” 🤏<br><br>The disappointment is real for Derek Gee, who took second place for the third time in the last seven stages 🥈🥈🥈<a href=” | <a href=” <a href=”https://t.co/NLpprTmBvz”>pic.twitter.com/NLpprTmBvz</a>
Sleeping was easy — at the start, he said.
“And then you reach a point where you’re so tired, you can’t sleep. And especially on the days when you get a result, even if the body wants to shut it down, sometimes the brain can’t. Sometimes it will be the hardest day of your life and then to top it off you have to race the next day on very little sleep.”
Israel-Premier Tech has plenty of other Canadian connections.
The team’s partners include Canadian-Israeli entrepreneur Sylvan Adams and fellow Canadians Jean Belanger and Kevin Ham.
Former Canadian cycling star Steve Bauer is one of the team’s sports directors. Other Canadians involved include performance director Paulo Saldanha, coach Christopher Rozdilsky, soigneur (support staffer) Jon Adams and head mechanic Andreas Back Watt.
Canadian Giro d’Italia history
Canadians have made headlines at the Giro in the past.
Ryder Hesjedal won the race in 2012 and Svein Tuft wore the pink leader’s jersey in 2014 after his Orica-GreenEdge squad won the opening team time trial. Including this year, a Canadian has taken part in the last 17 editions of the Giro.
Gee, now based in Girona, Spain, won the 2022 Canadian time trial national championship in wet, windy conditions in Edmonton.
He is also an accomplished track cyclist, coming fifth in the team pursuit at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, Canada’s best Olympic result in the event since 1932. In 2019, he was part of the Canadian squad that finished fourth in the team pursuit at the UCI Track World Championships.