He’s Canada’s top cyclist and for the moment, he’s the top cyclist in the world.
Victoria’s Ryder Hesjedal won the maglia rosa (pink jersey) as the overall winner of the Giro d’Italia on Sunday, following a sensational effort in the final three stages of the 3,500 kilometre, 21 stage race.
Hesjedal started the final day (May 27) in second place, and erased a 31-second deficit behind leader Joaquin Rodriguez in the 28.8 kilometre time trial of Stage 21 which wove through the streets of Milan. Hesjedal was sixth on the day with a time of 34:15, while Rodriguez slipped to second overall, finishing 26th in the time trial at 35:02. Belgium’s Thomas De Gendt was climbed to third overall in the general classification.
The West Shore’s Hesjedal, a Belmont secondary grad, is the first Canadian to win a grand tour, which includes the Giro, Tour de France and Spain’s Vuelta a Espana.
In the initial interviews and photo opportunities following his win, Hesjedal had yet to show much emotion.
“I can’t even describe (the feeling) going,” Hesjedal said during Sunday’s media conference call from Italy. “It’s overwhelming and it’s going to take a while to sink in.”
Hesjedal truly won the race by holding his second-place position, a half-minute back of Rodriguez, through the treacherous mountain climbs of stages 19 and 20 on Friday and Saturday, including Saturday’s seven hour marathon up the snowy slopes of the Stelvio summit. Both days Hesjedal successfully fended off breakaway attacks by leading contenders and previous Giro winners Ivan Basso (2006 and 2010) and Michele Scarponi (2011). Eurosport’s television analysts were impressed, thinking the attempts would slowly bleed Hesjedal’s stores, like being eaten by a pack of piranhas.
Not only did Hesjedal march on undeterred, he nearly stole Stage 19 on Friday from winner Roman Kreuziger, finishing second, just 19 seconds back. Kreuziger was the last man standing from a breakaway group that had held a commanding lead for much of the stage.
Then on Saturday Hesjedal once again completed the demanding final stretch while having to pace the maglia rosa pack, with his rivals drafting his slipstream up the steep climb.
Despite the conspiring by trio of Rodriguez, Basso and Scarponi, as well as others, to bump Hesjedal out Friday and Saturday, the contenders could not.
“We were supposed to drop Ryder Hesjedal but it’s been the opposite,” Rodriguez told the Cycling News on Friday. “Hesjedal gave us a lesson … the Giro is in his hands. If he doesn’t make any (mistakes) he’ll be the winner.”
Rodriquez was right.
“I had to fight for this Giro, (my competitors) weren’t helping me, and it makes this victory even sweeter,” Hesjedal said in response to the mountain stages.
“I had help from my team, who did what they could. But my rivals put the pressure on … as we approached the last part of the Stelvio, my rivals weren’t willing to work because they felt it was my race to lose. It’s tactics and situation, and I had to save my own Giro the last five kms, and that makes it that much sweeter.”
Also sweetening it was multiple kisses with wife Ashley Hofer, and seeing his friend and Tour de Victoria organizer Seamus McGrath and his dad at the Stelvio summit.
As for Hesjedal’s status in July’s Tour de France and this summer’s London Olympics, the Italian champion said he’ll begin putting a plan together soon.
“Once I started to see my name with the previous winners who’ve accomplished this, it will sink in, but I’m just enjoying it right now.”
Earlier this year Hesjedal’s seventh place finish at the 2010 Tour de France was bumped to sixth due to the disqualification of that year’s winner, Alberto Contador, who is also banned two years from international cycling for doping.
Fellow Canadian Svein Tuft finished ninth in the time trial on Sunday, 148th overall among the 157 cyclists to finish.
Cycling in pink
Since 1931, the Giro leaders jersey, known as the maglia rosa, has been pink to reflect the colour of La Gazzetta Dello Sport. Like the Tour de France, the Giro which started in 1909, was created to increase the readership of newspapers.
Asked repeatedly on Sunday about representing Canada at the upcoming Olympics, Hesjedal responded: “It’s the last thing on my mind right now, I don’t even know the selection date to be honest. But I’ve said all along I want to do it. I don’t see why I shouldn’t be in London, but we’ll see.”
Hesjedal wore the maple leaf at the 2004 Olympics as a mountain biker and at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, where he finished 54th in the road race and 16th in the road time trial.