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Ryder Hesjedal, of Canada, celebrates as he crosses the finish line of the 19th stage of the Giro d'Italia, Tour of Italy cycling race, from Treviso to Val di Fiemme, Italy, Friday, May 25, 2012. (Gian Mattia D'Alberto/AP/Gian Mattia D'Alberto/AP)
Ryder Hesjedal, of Canada, celebrates as he crosses the finish line of the 19th stage of the Giro d'Italia, Tour of Italy cycling race, from Treviso to Val di Fiemme, Italy, Friday, May 25, 2012. (Gian Mattia D'Alberto/AP/Gian Mattia D'Alberto/AP)

Giro d'italia

Hesjedal poised to mount pinnacle of Canadian cycling Add to ...

It is set to be one of the most difficult stages in the history of Grand Tour bicycle racing, billed by organizers as a “never before” seen grind over 219 kilometres, ending with two famous climbs. The total ascent for Saturday’s second-last stage of the Giro d’Italia will be 5,900 metres, two-thirds of the elevation of Mount Everest.

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The gruelling design is the result of a popular vote by fans, who were asked by organizers last year to rank 32 ascents in a “climb-that-cannot-be-missed” calculus. The top two were the Stelivo and the Mortirolo, impossibly steep, body-wrecking climbs in the Alps. So organizers paired the duo – first Mortirolo, then Stelivo – to conclude the Italian tour’s penultimate stage and, as organizers hoped last fall, it will likely decide the winner of the 2012 Giro.

In this crucible, a Canadian is poised to be crowned the winner.

Ryder Hesjedal, the 31-year-old one-time mountain bike racer from Victoria, has already led several stages of this year’s tour. If he wins this weekend, he will be the first Canadian to ever claim victory in a Grand Tour.

On Friday, Hesjedal delivered a stirring performance in the 19th stage of the Giro, refusing to let go of his toughest rivals over 198 kilometres and five huge climbs. Hesjedal finished the stage in second, 13 seconds ahead of leader Joaquim Rodriguez, whose overall lead over Hesjedal was nearly halved to 17 seconds.

A frustrated Rodriguez all but conceded the Giro to Hesjedal.

“We had to attack Ryder, but in the end it was he who gave us a lesson,” Rodriguez told reporters in comments carried by Agence France-Presse from Alpe di Pampeago in northern Italy. “Now he has the race in his hands. As long as he doesn’t make a mistake, he’ll be impossible to beat.”

The race ends Sunday with a 30.9-kilometre time trial in the streets of Milan, where Hesjedal, a superior sprinter to Rodriguez, was expected to gain ground on the leader. But it is Saturday when Hesjedal can really seize his moment.

“I finished very tired,” Hesjedal said after the Friday stage. “But I’m confident.”

A win would vault Hesjedal to the pinnacle, the greatest ever Canadian cyclist. Results in recent years, topped by a seventh-place finish in the 2010 Tour de France, have put him among Canada’s best, a small group of athletes from a nation that does not focus on, or excel at, Grand Tour racing.

The extreme mountains of northern Italy are a long way from Victoria, where in the mid-1990s Hesjedal finished second in his first competitive race, a mountain bike affair north of the British Columbia capital. Hesjedal arrived late and started two minutes behind his competition, raced in jeans and a T-shirt, and finished second.

He was then swept under the wing of Juerg Feldmann, a Swiss-born immigrant who was an oddball fitness expert. Feldmann focused on expanding the young rider’s VO2 max, the gauge of a body’s capacity to move and use oxygen during exercise. Feldmann took pinpricks of blood from Hesjedal’s thumb during races as part of the science-based training regimen, sparking askance glances from the domestic cycling establishment.

It worked. At 16, Hesjedal’s lung capacity was 4.6 litres, twice that of a normal person, a volume that by 2010 had nearly doubled. The Canadian’s lungs were able to take in nearly four times the amount of air and oxygen of an average human being.

As Hesjedal faces his steepest climbs towards the peak of his greatest victory - Saturday’s stage finishes at an elevation of 2,757 metres, the highest-elevation end to a Grand Tour stage, used as a finish line only a few times in the long history of the Giro d’Italia - it is the culmination of unorthodox bike story.

Hesjedal, Feldmann told The Globe and Mail in 2010, “has always refused cookie-cutter thinking.”

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