Over the years, Canadian cyclist Ryder Hesjedal has received many nicknames from his teammates and training partners, but his latest handle should stick for at least the next 10 days.
"We're calling him 'Weight of a Nation,' " quips Svein Tuft, who first began pedalling with Hesjedal 10 years ago. "That one takes the cake, so I'll leave it at that."
Hesjedal's performance at the Tour de France, the most famous bicycle race in the world, is just the beginning of what should be a banner year for Canadian cycling. The 29-year-old from Victoria is in 12th place after Wednesday's 10th stage, and was as high as third earlier in the Tour.
Steve Bauer was fourth in 1998, the best Tour finish in history by a Canadian. The 2010 competition ends on July 25 at the famed final stage on the Champs-Élysées in Paris.
"Since Steve's time, Canadians haven't gotten much face time at the Tour de France," said Canadian Cycling Association president John Tolkamp. "I'm sure there's a 16-year-old out there who's watching."
Not surprisingly, Hesjedal's results have been the talk of B.C. Superweek, a collection of races around the Lower Mainland, culminating with the 31st Tour de White Rock this weekend. Tuft, a teammate on the Garmin-Transitions team, and others competitors in Vancouver knew Hesjedal before he hit the big time.
"It's huge," Tuft said of the visibility his teammate is bringing their sport. "Something like that piques the interest of every Canadian, not just athletes."
Later this year, Hesjedal is expected to race on home soil, where he will surely garner more attention. The CCA has signed a five-year contract to stage the country's first UCI ProTour events, complete with a provision that it be allowed to enter national teams in the races.
The first stop is in Quebec City on Sept. 12. Two days later, competitors will be in Montreal. A week before that, Canada is hosting the world mountain bike championships at Mont-Sainte-Anne, Que.
Tolkamp said the races will give younger Canadian riders valuable experience against world-class fields, and he is also hoping that Bauer can secure a sponsor for his fledgling SpiderTech team and provide even more opportunities for homegrown cyclists.
SpiderTech is Canada's only Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) continental team. It competes in third-tier events but does not participate on the 16-stop ProTour because it lacks status.
Ultimately, the goal is enter the Canadian-based team in the Tour de France. Bauer wore the yellow jersey, given to the Tour's leader, for 14 days in his career, and also took home a silver medal from the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
"It takes a while to develop the talent," Tolkamp said. "If he can get more money, it will give up-and-coming riders a Canadian team to go to."
Tolkamp hopes that the ProTour stops later this year flush out new talent in Canada and attract corporate sponsors. And for those athletes already in the development system, he said Hesjedal has provided a target to shoot for and an example that competitiveness against the world's best can be achieved.
"A lot of people who ride with him in these parts now understand what hard work does, and what it takes to get to the next level," Tolkamp said.