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Ryder Hesjedal
Ryder Hesjedal

Cyclist Ryder Hesjedal marks his route to take Europe Add to ...

Ryder Hesjedal, the sleeper Canadian whose Giro d’Italia victory astonished the cycling world, does not consider himself a freak of nature. He is taller and leaner than most riders, especially the muscle-laden sprinters, but that doesn’t necessarily make him a standout.

What does is hidden: his lungs.

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Their capacity is off the charts, whale-like, like two empty garbage bins wrapped in flesh.

Lance Armstrong, the most successful bike racer of all time, with seven Tour de France wins, has a lung capacity of about seven litres. The average healthy male’s lungs clock in at a mere six litres.

Mr. Hesjedal’s? Try 8.3 litres. “That’s been measured,” he said Tuesday from his apartment in Girona, just outside of Barcelona. “I obviously have the physical qualities to achieve these feats.”

If that figure is not a record, it’s close to it for a bike racer. While lung capacity isn’t everything, the ability to suck in vast amounts of air means you can pump more oxygen into your blood, and that translates into enhanced performance.

Some bike racers are famous for their lung capacity. Armstrong was one. Another was the Spaniard Miguel Indurain, the winner of five consecutive Tours in the 1990s (in spite of suffering from asthma, no less). With a lung capacity of eight litres, he was considered a sporting mutant. His lungs were so big that they pushed down his stomach, giving him his trademark paunch.

Mr. Hesjedal said his “above average” lung capacity – talk about an understatement – is not the only asset that gives him a competitive advantage. The other is a tolerance for pain that borders on the masochistic as the lactic acid surges through his thighs during gruelling races.

He credits the capacity for self-punishment – born from endless training and mental discipline – for his success more than his lung capacity. “I really think it’s more mental,” he said. “Cycling is just the ability to keep fighting and telling your body to keep moving. You decide when you think the suffering is too much. I just keep suffering and punishing myself.”

So will the man with the outsized lungs and capacity for pain compete in the Tour de France, the most prestigious of the three grand European tours (the other is Spain’s Vuelta)?

Bolstered by his Giro win – he is the first Canadian to take the podium in the Italian race – Mr. Hesjedal would seem unlikely to miss the Tour. But, oddly, he hesitates when asked if he is definitely going.

He gives two reasons for his hesitation. The first is that he just hasn’t had time to think about the Tour. “I’ve never won the Giro before and I just need to decompress a bit,” he said. Indeed, his surprise victory came on Sunday and he has been flat out since then celebrating, giving interviews, seeing his wife and father.

The other reason for his hesitation is strategy – that is, picking which races in which to compete and which ones to avoid. There are a lot of options. The Tour starts June 30, followed by the London Olympics (July 27, if he goes), then the Vuelta (Aug. 18). Various Grand Prix and the world championship follow. And the decision is not purely his own; he has to make it with his Garmin-Barracuda team.

“There are still a lot of races in the calendar and you have to be smart about what you go for,” he said. “It will take a while to assess the situation and what toll it will take on you.”

There is no doubt, however, that he is dying to go the Olympics. “I want to bring back a medal for Canada for sure,” he said.

But as Canadian Olympian bike racer Steve Bauer noted in a Monday column in The Globe and Mail, only one Canadian can be entered in the 250-kilometre Olympic road race on July 28 – and it may not be Mr. Hesjedal. Mr. Hesjedal, he pointed out, is a time-trialist and climber, not a sprinter, and there’s a good chance the London race will end in a mass sprint.

Whether or not he makes it to the Tour and the Olympics, Mr. Hesjedal, 31, has had a happy few months that started in December, with his marriage in Missouri to Ashley Hofer, 26, a University of Missouri business grad he met in Boulder, Colo., in 2009.

He says they “definitely” plan to have kids.

Ashley, he said, has devoted herself to “just supporting me at the moment.” The couple really have no fixed address, because of the crazy touring schedule. Their summer base is Spain; Hawaii is their winter training base.

Victoria, his hometown, is conveniently halfway between the two, and Mr. Hesjedal, who is fond of trail walking (“I like to get off the pavement”), relaxes there. His parents, Leonard and Paige, and younger sister Kyla, are all in Victoria. His parents both work for the Capital Regional District, the regional government. Kyla works at a Starbucks.

Ashley, Leonard and a few close friends of Mr. Hesjedal flew into Milan last Friday, two days before the end of the Giro d’Italia. By then, they knew Mr. Hesjedal – his massive lungs close to bursting, his pain threshold in check – was a potential medalist in the race, but had no idea their boy would win.

They too got the surprise of their lives and joined the celebration in front of the Duomo cathedral in central Milan, where the Canadian flag was on proud display. “This year is going pretty good so far,” Mr. Hesjedal said. “The Giro was the sweetest.”

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