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Ryder Hesjedal of Canada reacts as he crosses the finish line in the Giro d'Italia cycling race in Milan, May 27, 2012. (Alessandro Garofalo/Reuters/Alessandro Garofalo/Reuters)
Ryder Hesjedal of Canada reacts as he crosses the finish line in the Giro d'Italia cycling race in Milan, May 27, 2012. (Alessandro Garofalo/Reuters/Alessandro Garofalo/Reuters)

How the Giro d'Italia came down to a battle of seconds Add to ...

It was an almost impossibly small margin to show for three weeks of racing. After 3,500 kilometres on their bicycles, Canadian Ryder Hesjedal beat Spaniard Joaquim Rodriguez by only 16 seconds.

The gap, the second smallest in Giro history, made for a nail-biting finish. It could also seem incomprehensible to non-fans that the riders were so equally matched. But for all the distance involved, stage racing is often an event in which victory is measured in seconds.

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Although circumstances on the road can force a change of plan, each team starts a three-week stage race with defined objectives. The team might be trying to do well over all, placing high in the General Classification; or a team might aim to win particular stages, which vary from agonizing mountain climbs faster rides on the flats. If trying for the GC, they will be aware of highest-risk rivals and do everything possible not to let them get away.

The aerodynamic advantage of riding in a pack makes it difficult for riders to break free on flatter ground. Breakaways by riders not thought to challenge for the GC are often allowed to go, but a contender would be chased down by his rivals and their support riders.

Only in the mountains can a GC contender credibly hope to go solo off the front of the pack. Some of the most dramatic moments in the Grand Tours have been when the greats have gone head-to-head for an advantage in the big mountains. But while Mr. Hesjedal and Mr. Rodriguez tested each other in the final mountain stages, gaining and losing seconds, neither could make a decisive break. It came down to the finishing time trial, an event that favoured the Canadian, to decide the race.

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