Ryder Hesjedal has made history.
The Victoria native became the first Canadian to win one of cycling’s three Grand Tour events Sunday, wrapping up the 2012 Giro d’Italia with an excellent performance in the 21st and final stage in Milan.
He raced the 30-kilometre course through the streets of Italy's second largest city in 34:15.
This is only the second time in the Giro's 95-year history that the overall lead changed hands on the final day, the last being in 1984 when Italian Francesco Moser took over from Frenchman Laurent Fignon in the final stage.
Sunday’s stage was an individual time trial, which is something that Hesjedal, of the Garmin Barracuda team, has been known to perform strongly in. He trailed the pink jersey leader Joaquim Rodriguez by 31 seconds coming into the final stage.
Rodriguez finished second, just 16 seconds back after 21 stages, with Thomas De Gendt of Belgium third, one minute 39 seconds behind.
“I knew Rodriguez was going to be very determined,” Hesjedal told CBC News from Milan, after the race. “He’s lost some situations like this before in the time trial, and I know how hungry that would make him and I knew I had to go for everything — an unbelievable ride today.”
Hesjedal, whose previous best was a sixth-place finish in the 2010 Tour de France, emerged over the last three weeks of battling across the plains and up the mountains of Italy as one of the new stars in the sport.
Rodriguez had worn the pink jersey, as general classification leader of the race, for 10 days over the course of the race and gave it his all in the time trial, but just fell short.
"I believed it until the end and so it's almost harder for me," said Rodriguez. "It's only now, with hindsight, that you see the mistakes. Maybe we should have distanced Ryder in the first week. But it went how it went and Ryder won.
"He was the strongest in the three weeks. I did my best and I don't have any regrets."
Hesjedal, meanwhile, held the pink jersey in stages 7-9 and stage 14.
“Since the first day I pulled [the jersey] on, I knew I had a good chance,” he said. “Everyone was underestimating me. I had to stay focused, my team was 100 per cent and the team rode unbelievable every day.”
Hesjedal credited the whole Garmin Barracuda team, from the chefs to the masseuses and the public relations staff.
"The nine of us [riders] just have to go out and ride our bikes and focus on our jobs, and I’m just happy to get it done for everybody.”
Hesjedal is now among the favourites for the Tour de France, starting June 30 at Liege, Belgium, if the effort in the Giro allows him to recover fully in time.
Steve Bauer, of St. Catharines, Ont., had been the previous best Canadian finisher in the Grand Tour (which also includes the Vuelta a Espana, in August) with a fourth-place finish in the 1988 Tour de France.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a statement immediately after the race to congratulate Hesjedal.
“On behalf of all Canadians, I would like to congratulate Ryder Hesjedal for his amazing victory in the Giro d'Italia, riding for team Garmin-Barracuda,” the statement said. “This remarkable win in one of bicycle racing's most grueling competitions is a testimony to Mr. Hesjedal’s training, endurance, skill and competitive spirit.
“It is a particularly proud moment for Canada given that this is the first time in the history of professional cycling that a Canadian has won one of the sport's three grand tours.
“We thank Mr. Hesjedal for this defining moment in Canadian sport and wish him well in his upcoming races, including this year's Tour de France.”
On Twitter, seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong praised Hesjedal's achievement.
"Congratulations to @ryder_hesjedal on his incredible victory in the .giro. Gotta love it when the best man wins," tweeted Armstrong.
Toronto cyclist Michael Barry added: "Emotional moment watching the Canadian flags go up in Milan and hearing the anthem. Congrats @ryder_hesjedal You've inspired us all."
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