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Hesjedal conquers the Giro as Canada rides into cycling contention

Canada's Ryder Hesjedal holds the trophy after winning the 95th Giro d'Italia, Tour of Italy cycling race, in Milan, Italy, Sunday, May 27, 2012.

Daniele Badolato/Daniele Badolato/AP

He cycled 3,500 kilometres in 21 days – climbing, sprinting and grinding his way to the finish line in 91 hours, 39 minutes and 2 seconds.

On Sunday, Ryder Hesjedal took one of cycling's most prestigious titles, heralding Canada's status as a contender in what was once considered a European sport.

His success comes at a time when Canadians are taking up road cycling in ever-greater numbers, raising hopes that the sport's increased profile will help cultivate the next generation of world-beaters.

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The 31-year-old native of Victoria claimed the Giro d'Italia with a victory that was the second-closest in the gruelling race's 104-year history – a mere 16 seconds. He is the first Canadian to finish on the podium of any of cycling's three marquee Grand Tours.

"It's just incredible," Mr. Hesjedal told reporters from Milan, where the final stage of the race took place. "I can't even describe it. I think it's going to take a while to really sink in."

For many, seeing a spandex-clad Canadian spray champagne from a pro-cycling podium no doubt came as a shock, or at least an aberration. But it confirmed Mr. Hesjedal's elite status among the small but dedicated group of enthusiasts that follow the sport in Canada – and comes at a time when interest in cycling, both competitive and recreational, is surging.

This summer, Canada will send as many as 12 athletes to London as its national cycling team, the largest group ever. In the Giro, there were three other Canadians racing, the most to compete in a single Grand Tour.

John Tolkamp, the president of Cycling Canada, called Mr. Hesjedal's win "one for the ages: This puts [Canada]over the top in terms of on the map. It's a huge confidence boost."

The cycling association has about 34,000 licensed riders, and has recently seen a growth of about 10 per cent a year, Mr. Tolkamp said. About 10,000 of the association's membership are cyclists who compete internationally and another 24,000 are more recreational competitors. In the past five years, its budget has doubled to $6-million from $3.5-million.

"Clubs across the country are starting very active youth programs. Funding and coaching is starting to take off," he said. After this weekend, "we hope more doors open."

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The retail bike industry has also reported an upswing in sales, particularly for road bikes. According to the Bicycle Trade Association of Canada, sales by independent retailers was at $250-million in 2010, increasing 21 per cent from 2009.

For his part, Mr. Hesjedal is aware that he is in a position to inspire.

"I think it'll create awareness," he said. "I think Canadian cycling is about the highest level it's ever been and I think this will just continue that movement."

Former racer Steve Bauer is among those in the Canadian cycling community that hope the victory will help propel the sport forward. He owns team SpiderTech-C10, which is trying to reach cycling's highest level, and said that increased profile can only boost the sport in this country.

"He's going to help Canadian cycling, he's going to help young athletes aspire to reach the top," Mr. Bauer said.

But Bruce Kidd, former dean of the faculty of physical education and health at the University of Toronto, cautioned that there is a fleeting chance to capitalize on Mr. Hesjedal's victory. He said support systems – urban cycling plans, coaching, science, amateur clubs – have to be improved or this moment will pass.

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"Inspiration is not enough," he said. "[This victory]will answer those arguments that a Canadian can't do it. But if it's going to make a significant difference, it has to be linked to increased opportunities."

Mr. Hesjedal began as an amateur mountain-bike racer. He turned pro as a road cyclist in 2005 and bounced from team to team. He had a solid 2010 – including a sixth-place finish in the Tour de France – and then a quieter season last year. In November, however, management for Garmin-Barracuda chose him as the team's primary rider for the Giro.

Along with the other Grand Tours – the Tour de France and the Vuelta a España – the Giro is one of the biggest and most challenging events on the cycling calendar. Although the French race gets the most attention, Mr. Bauer, who placed fourth at the Tour in 1988, said the Giro is just as tough.

"I put them equal, winning a Giro, winning a Tour," he said.

Mr. Hesjedal went into the final stage trailing the race leader by 31 seconds. It was an individual time trial, a 28.2-kilometre solo race against the clock, which suited his talents better than those of the leader, Spaniard Joaquim Rodriguez.

The Canadian hammered out of the starting gate and had almost made up the deficit by the end of the first section. He finished the day 47 seconds faster than Mr. Rodriguez, putting him 16 seconds ahead after 21 days of racing.

Sunday's result came as a surprise to Italians, who didn't have a compatriot on the podium of their country's biggest race for the first time since 1995. But the tifosi, the super-fans who lined the course as the race wound around the country, have reportedly warmed day by day to the low-key Canadian. And after his win, the website called it "the most beautiful moment" of Mr. Hesjedal's life. "The curtain, in Piazza del Duomo, flapped in praise of Canada," they said.

With a report from Eric Reguly in Rome

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About the Authors

Oliver Moore joined the Globe and Mail's web newsroom in 2000 as an editor and then moved into reporting. A native Torontonian, he served four years as Atlantic Bureau Chief and has worked also in Afghanistan, Grenada, France, Spain and the United States. More

Erin Anderssen writes about mental health, social policy and family issues. More

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