Victoria cycling hero Ryder Hesjedal made history again Wednesday when he became the first cyclist to be named Canadian Press male athlete of the year.
The Belmont Secondary grad’s performance in the gruelling 3,500-kilometre Giro d’Italia in May clinched the honour, named for Lionel Conacher, a Canadian boxing champion, NHL player and Toronto Argonaut, who died in 1954.
Hesjedal won the Giro in 91 hours, 39 minutes and two seconds over 21 stages from Herning, Denmark, to Milan, Italy.
He was the first Canadian racer to win a Grand Tour event and only the second non-European to win the Giro.
“You’re winning it every moment, over every kilometre for three weeks,” said Hesjedal of his victory in Italy. “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.”
Hesjedal is now training in Hawaii, spending most of his time on his bike getting ready for the upcoming season, said friend Bill Fry, co-owner of cycle store The Trek. “He keeps amazing us — he’s done such a great job being an ambassador for cycling.”
Hesjedal, 32, grew up in the Highlands area, biking every day after school at Millstream Elementary.
He led the Canadian team at the Tour de France and represented Canada at the London Olympics in 2012 — but neither was a triumph. He finished 28th in the men’s time trial at the Olympics and crashed out of the Tour de France following a scary spill in the sixth stage.
Hesjedal said he rode on the shoulders of Island cycling greats he idolized while growing up, including Olympian and two-time world mountain-biking champion Roland Green and Olympian Andreas Hestler. “I just naturally wanted to follow them and emulate them on the world stage,” he once told the Times Colonist.
Hesjedal has said climate is a big part of the Island’s success in cycling and other Summer Olympics sports.
“You don't have to worry about snow and excessive cold here. As long as you don’t mind the wet, you’re good to go 12 months of the year and that’s been a huge factor in our favour on the Island,” he said.
“We lived in the Highlands and I biked to get around as a kid. It just seemed the thing to do. I would bike to and from school and also just for adventure and exploring. For a real challenge, I would ride over the Malahat to Cobble Hill or Shawnigan Lake or out to Sooke.”
Given the massive publicity over Lance Armstrong’s loss of his seven Tour de France titles due to doping allegations, Hesjedal said, “It’s even more crucial to recognize the achievements of now.”
The winner of the Bobbie Rosenfeld Award as Canada’s female athlete of the year will be announced today.
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