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Ryder Hesjedal's Giro d'Italia victory is a first for Canada

Photo: PIER MAULINI/EPA

Canada's Ryder Hesjedal overtook the leader Joaquin Rodriguez in the final stage to win cycling's Giro d'Italia.

Who is Canada's best-known cyclist, ever? No fair to say Trevor Linden, the ex-Vancouver Canuck captain, who happens to be an avid amateur rider. Maybe Steve Bauer, who wore the Tour de France leader's yellow jersey for nine days in 1988, deserves the title. Or Alex Stieda, who two years earlier, with a surprise attack on the second day of the race, captured all five of the Tour's jerseys -- and was so knackered by the effort that he barely got through the next stage, and was almost tossed from the Tour. Mountain biker Alison Sydor was a four-time world champion. Gord Fraser won over 200 races in his day. Durable, versatile Michael Barry may be the best writer in the pro peloton.

However, we can put the debate aside; as of Sunday, Canada has a new best-known cyclist. Chapeau, Canada -- and to the serendipitously named Ryder Hesjedal of Team Garmin-Barracuda, a 31-year-old from Victoria, British Columbia who came from 31 seconds behind race leader Joaquim Rodriguez on the final day to win this epic, three-week, 3,500-km Giro d'Italia. Hesjedal beat the Spaniard, riding for Katusha, by 16 seconds, the second-closest margin of victory in the 104-year history of the race.

Cycling only has three grand tours -- the Giro, the Tour de France and the Vuelta a Espana -- and until Sunday, no Canadian had ever finished first in one.

"It's a little like a Canadian becoming a starting quarterback for an NFL team or a Canadian cracking the lineup of Manchester United or Barcelona," wrote Ed Willes, columnist for British Columbia's The Province. "One supposes it's possible in the way it's possible we might colonize Mars one day."

It took Hesjedal only eight years to become an overnight success. A one-time wunderkind in mountain biking, he chucked that sport in 2004 after a flat tire cost him any chance at a medal at the Athens Olympics. Switching to the road, the angular (6'2", 159) Hesjedal showed immediate promise as a climber and time trialist -- a skill set that would serve him well in grand tours. When Garmin's Christian Vande Velde crashed and broke several ribs early in the 2010 Tour de France, team founder and director Jonathan Vaughters told Hesjedal, OK kid, you're on. Hesjedal's subsequent sixth-place finish announced him as future force.

After studying the course profile of this year's Giro, Vaughters concluded that the race suited Hesjedal. While the Canadian didn't buy in right away, he gained strength and confidence as the race went on, riding into the pink race leader's jersey in Stage 7.

He failed to hold it, ceding six seconds -- and the jersey -- to Rodriguez on the cobbled roads of Assissi in Stage 10. They traded the jersey yet again over the next several stages. But the Spaniard could never get comfortable. Knowing that he would lose a chunk of time to Hesjedal in the final stage, a 28.2 km time trial around Milan, Rodriguez knew he needed to bury Hesjedal in the mountains. Even in the cruel passes of the Dolomites during the 20th stage -- the penultimate stage took the riders over the famed, feared Mortirolo, and finished on the dastardly Stelvio -- Rodriguez could not. He and third-place finisher Thomas De Gendt, who soloed bravely to win that stage, rounded out the podium.

Don't tell the French, but the mountain passes of the Giro are more beautiful and breathtaking than the Alps and Pyrenees of the Tour. They're nastier to get over, too -- ask Team Sky's Mark Cavendish, who lost the sprinter's jersey to Rodriguez by a single point. Cav may be the best pure sprinter of his generation, but this grand tour brought him low. "They say what doesn't kill you makes you stronger," he told Velonews, "but I think this Giro has pretty much killed me. I am dead. I am on my hands and knees. The Giro is the hardest grand tour in the world."

It is now the best grand tour, in the eyes of a wide swathe of Canadians who went into the weekend with only a dim awareness of a race called the Giro, and a rider named Ryder.

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