TORONTO — Don’t tell Ryder Hesjedal he won the Giro d’Italia on the last day.
His victorious ride lasted 91 hours 39 minutes two seconds over 21 stages, covering 3,503.8 kilometres from Herning, Denmark, to Milan.
It took 23 days in May — there were two rest days — and the help of every one of his Garmin-Sharp teammates and support staff for Hesjedal to become the first Canadian racer to win a Grand Tour event and only the second non-European to win the Giro.
His journey from peloton to podium took him more than a dozen years as a pro, from mountain biker to road racer.
And now it has led him to the Lionel Conacher Award, the first cyclist to be named Canadian Press male athlete of the year.
“An incredible honour,” the soft-spoken Hesjedal said from his off-season home in Hawaii.
“I finished 2011, I got married to my beautiful wife (Ashley) and I was just focused on that goal — taking a crack at the Giro and knowing that deep down I have the capacity for three-week racing,” he added.
“For the season to unfold the way it did in the spring and have that perfect run really, in respect to my training was just right, I didn’t get sick, I had no setbacks. To arrive at the Giro and have it unfold the way it did, I had the opportunity to show myself and that’s what athletes dream of.”
The award is named after the multi-sport athlete who was chosen Canada’s athlete of the half-century. The winner of the Bobbie Rosenfeld Award as Canada’s female athlete of the year will be announced Thursday.
Hesjedal finished with 139 points and 32 first-place votes in balloting of sports editors and broadcasters across the country. Tennis star Milos Raonic was runner-up with 131 points and 26 first-place votes.
Calgary Stampeders running back Jon Cornish was third (87, 14), followed by Tampa Bay Lightning sniper Steven Stamkos (69, 12) and figure skater Patrick Chan (68, 11).
“Ryder Hesjedal put himself, and Canadian cycling, on the world stage with his historic victory in the Giro d’Italia,” said Yahoo’s Steve McAllister.
Cycling has taken its share of body blows this year with Lance Armstrong’s spectacular fall from grace after an avalanche of affidavits over rampant doping in his team.
But voters around the world have singled out cyclists from the sport’s current crop for their efforts.
In addition to Canadian media honouring Hesjedal, Tour de France winner and Olympic time trial champion Bradley Wiggins was recently named the 2012 BBC Sports Personality of the Year. And Tom Boonen was chosen Belgium’s Sportsman of the Year.
Given what has come to light about the sport’s past, Hesjedal says “it’s even more crucial to recognize the achievements of now.”
Whatever happens in 2013, Hesjedal has already earned his place on the Giro honour roll alongside legends like Miguel Indurain, Eddy Merckx and Jacques Anquetil.
The 32-year-old from Victoria will wear the No. 1 bib as he opens defence of his Giro title on May 4.
“Only the strongest will wear the pink (jersey),” says the official race promo. “This is Giro d’Italia. The toughest race in the world’s most beautiful place.”
Team officials looked at the 2012 Giro and saw the course was suited for Hesjedal, who is able to retain much of his power over a three-week race while others break down.
So they tailored his pre-Giro schedule to prepare him for the first Grand Tour of the Season. The strategy worked. Hesjedal wore the pink leader’s jersey after Stages 7, 8, 9, 14 and, most importantly, 21.
He auctioned one off for charity after the race but says “I’ve got a few pink jerseys still in hand. And definitely that trophy is sitting in (his home in) Spain and it’s a pretty nice addition to the living room.”
He trailed Spaniard Joaquin Rodriguez by 31 seconds going into the final 28.2-kilometre individual time trial. He ended up winning by 16 seconds.
“I still think a lot of people don’t really understand,” he said of stage racing. “You see stuff (like) ’He won it on the last day.’ Like things just get decided that simply.
“You’re winning it every moment, over every kilometre for three weeks. It’s just incredible. There’s not really anything like it. Really, to be a Grand Tour winner, it’s a very small club and it’s a very elite club and I’m very grateful for that.
“I couldn’t have done it without the support of my team and my family and my friends and the fans and everyone over the years and years. It’s just a culmination of years and years of work.”
After the Giro, Hesjedal entered the Tour de France feeling fresh. But he was caught up in a large crash on the sixth stage. Teammate David Millar called it “the scariest crash I’ve ever been in.”
Hesjedal started the day in ninth place, just 18 seconds back, and finished it in 108th spot, more than 13 minutes in arrears. He pulled out the next day with a left leg and hip injury.
He returned to his home in Spain and amazingly hardly missed a day on the bike as he worked his way back into fitness ahead of the Olympic Games.
At six foot two and 159 pounds, Hesjedal is a tall drink of water who looks younger than his years and has a distinct sense of style. He arrived in London for the Games wearing plaid shorts, colourful runners, a Canada jacket, red sunglasses and a smile.
Without the benefit of any Canadian teammates, he finished 63rd in the London road race. He was 28th in the 44-kilometre time trial.
“Really the whole season went really well for me,” he said. “I carried on after a small break in August and went right to the middle of October, doing the last World Tour races on the calendar.
“So there wasn’t a lot of time to just sit back … Definitely there’s a little bit more demand on my time, certainly with the team and sponsors and taking advantage of that (Giro) result and using it in a good way.”
Still, he says he’s tried to keep things the same as much as possible.
“Because that’s how I’m here today and was able to do that. I’ve kept my routine very similar, especially my off-season and how I approach getting to the New Year.”
Hesjedal plans to begin his racing season at Spain’s Tour of Catalonia.
“That’s mid-March and then I basically don’t let up right into the Giro,” he said.
Job 1 is his Giro defence.
“Definitely. It just has to be that way,” he said. “It’s before the Tour, we respect the Giro very much. I have to honour that and I want to. To go back there after what the Giro did for me, what the Giro’s given to me, that’s the ultimate respect and that’s what I want to do.
“I want to be there with the No. 1 bib and try and do it again. I know no matter what happens, I can still move into the rest of the season and benefit from that.”
He also has his eye on the Tour de France, confident that he can emerge from the Giro with the necessary fitness for a second marathon ride.