Cycling history was made Sunday in Italy as Victoria, B.C. native Ryder Hesjedal became the first Canadian to win one of the three Grand Tour events, coming from behind to claim the Giro d'Italia with a blazing time of 34:15 in the 21st and last stage. Hesjesdal's victory also marked only the second time in the race's 95-year history that the lead changed hands on the final day, and the first since 1984; he trailed pink jersey leader Joaquim Rodriguez by 31 seconds heading into the last stage, but made up that time and more over the 30-kilometre individual time trial course through the streets of Milan, triumphing by 16 seconds in the end.
What's incredible about Hesjedal's victory is that it's so far above what any Canadian has ever done on the biggest cycling stages. Heading into Sunday, it wasn't just that no Canadian had ever claimed the Giro d'Italia or the other two Grand Tour events (the Tour de France and the Vuelta a España); no Canadian had ever even made the podium in any of those events. The previous best was Steve Bauer's fourth-place finish in the 1988 Tour de France, although Hesjedal himself pulled off an impressive seventh in the 2010 Tour de France. Still, coming through in spectacular fashion like this to not just finish on the podium but finish at the top is remarkable; Hesjedal teared up when the Canadian anthem was played for the first time following a Grand Tour event, and it's hard to blame him. Here's video of his podium reaction (Italian commentary):
Here's a quick courseside video of Hesjedal in action Sunday:
And here's what he told Eurosport's Felix Lowe:
"It's like a dream. This whole race has been unbelievable. I have never been more focused on something in my life."
The rest of Canada and the world is taking notice, too. Prime Minister Stephen Harper already sent out a statement commenting on Hesjesdal's win, saying "We thank Mr. Hesjedal for this defining moment in Canadian sport. 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." Jennifer Heil, who's claimed gold and silver Olympic medals for Canada in mogul skiing, sent out congratulations to Hesjedal, and famed cyclist Lance Armstrong, a seven-time Tour de France champion, also praised Hesjedal on Twitter:
It's a great day for cycling in Canada, and it adds to a stellar week for Canadian athletes. Kamloops, B.C. native Dylan Armstrong claimed gold in the shot put at the IAAF World Challenge Golden Spike meeting in the Czech Republic Friday, his third gold in five days, while kayaker Adam van Koeverden claimed a World Cup silver Saturday in Germany, while the men's pairs and women's eight rowing teams also picked up silvers in the Rowing World Cup in Switzerland Saturday and the men's eight set a world record in their heat Friday before claiming bronze in the final. There may be more to come, too; although it starts in just a month and isn't frequently challenged for in the same year, there are suggestions Hesjedal may take a run at the Tour de France as well. Regardless of how he does there, though, he made all of Canada proud with his win Sunday.