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Garmin-Barracuda's Ryder Hesjedal of Canada kisses the trophy on the podium after the 30-kilometre time trial in the 21st and last stage of the Giro d'Italia cycling race in Milan on Sunday.ALESSANDRO GAROFALO

Canadian cyclist Ryder Hesjedal has triumphed at the Giro d'Italia, clawing back crucial time in the final stage through the streets of Milan to win the three-week race by 16 seconds.

The victory Sunday, the first by a Canadian in any of cycling's three marquee Grand Tours, comes after 21 stages capped with a pair of gruelling days in the mountains.

The British Columbia native threw both hands in the air and looked briefly skyward as he emerged to take his place on the podium. His eyes appeared to be watering as the Canadian national anthem was played for the first time at the end of a Grand Tour.

He told the CBC later that he knew he had a chance from the first time he pulled on the famed maglia rosa, the pink jersey given to race leader, after the seventh stage. The jersey traded hands repeatedly between him and Spaniard Joaquim Rodríguez before the result was cemented Sunday.

"I feel real good right now," Hesjedal said.

The final stage was an individual time trial, a solo race against the clock, and Hesjedal was seen as the best in that discipline among the remaining contenders for the overall victory.

He was off the pace of the stage winner but far enough ahead of the people he had to beat over the 28.2-kilometre course. It was the first time in 28 years that the race lead changed hands on the last day.

"We thank Mr. Hesjedal for this defining moment in Canadian sport," Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in a statement. "This remarkable win in one of bicycle racing's most grueling competitions is a testimony to Mr. Hesjedal's training, endurance, skill and competitive spirit."

Hesjedal ended up winning the overall victory in the second tightest finish of the race's history. Second place went to Rodríguez, whom Hesjedal pipped on the final day, and third place to Belgian Thomas de Gendt. It was the first time since 1995 that an Italian was not on the podium for the country's biggest race.

Jonathan Vaughters, CEO of Hesjedal's team, Garmin-Barracuda, said on the race's penultimate day that their rider was exceeding expectations.

"We were very confident of a top-10, confident of a top-5 and hopeful of a podium," he said Saturday in an interview with race broadcasters.

Hesjedal, the 31-year-old one-time mountain bike racer from Victoria, led the race for four stages. He went into the final stage 31 seconds behind Rodríguez.

But Rodríguez, a climbing specialist, knew he needed a miracle to protect that lead in the time trial. He all but conceded victory after Friday's stage, in which he lost 13 seconds to an attacking Hesjedal. Rodríguez took back those seconds and one more Saturday, but the cushion was not nearly big enough to stay in the lead.

Hesjedal made up that time and another 16 seconds to take the biggest win of his career.

The win vaults Hesjedal to the pinnacle, the most successful Canadian cyclist. No other Canadian has finished on the podium of a Grand Tour, which include the Tour de France, the Giro, and the Vuelta a España. Steve Bauer's fourth place finish in the 1988 Tour de France was, until now, the best Canadian result in any of these races.

Hesjedal scored a sixth-place finish in the 2010 Tour de France. Although that event starts barely a month from now, racers occasionally manage to win both. Cycling fans are now waiting to see whether Hesjedal will attempt the rare feat.

With files from The Globe and Mail's David Ebner