By DANIELLA MATAR, Associated Press
MILAN (AP) — Ryder Hesjedal became the first Canadian to win one of cycling's three major tour races, capturing the Giro d'Italia on Sunday by overtaking Spain's Joaquin Rodriguez in the final stage.
Hesjedal started the 21st stage 31 seconds behind the leader, but finished 16 seconds ahead of Rodriguez in the overall standings. He completed the 17.5-mile individual time trial in 34 minutes, 15 seconds. That was good for sixth place — 20 spots ahead of Rodriguez in the 95th edition of the race.
"It's just been an unreal experience from Day One, what the team was able to do. It's unbelievable," said Hesjedal, whose total race time was 91 hours, 39 minutes, 2 seconds. "This is incredible. It's a dream come true."
He is only the third non-Italian to win the Giro in the past 15 years.
"I couldn't have done it without the team," he said. "I knew I was good when I came into the race. I stayed focused and took every opportunity. The support, the fans at home, it's all unreal. I'd like to thank everyone."
Like the rest of the riders, Hesjedal had been through a demanding mountain ride to the top of the Stelvio Pass in northern Italy on Saturday.
"Yesterday was extremely hard," he said. "I got through it and I knew as I was on the helicopter descending into Milan that I still had a shot. This morning I just felt incredible on my bike and I knew I could do it."
Though he hadn't taken his victory chances seriously before the race, Hesjedal's thinking started to change after he first wore the pink jersey on Stage 7, following a fifth-place finish.
"I never thought I'm going to win," he said. "I was always just focused on having a good ride and I knew that would put me up there. The day I pulled on the jersey for the first time I knew I was good and could accomplish something great and that drove me harder."
It is the first major victory for Hesjedal, whose sixth place in the 2010 Tour de France was the highest Canadian finish in the race in 22 years.
"It can only be a good thing for the sport in Canada and I'm proud of that," the Garmin rider said. "Just the other day someone went into a store in Canada and asked where they could get a pink Garmin jersey...so it still has a way to go!"
Hesjedal and Rodriguez were the last two riders to start. Rodriguez, who had worn the pink jersey for 10 days over the course of the race, ended the stage in 35:02.
"It's only now, with hindsight, that you see the mistakes," said Rodriguez, who rides for Katusha. "Maybe we should have distanced Ryder in the first week. But it went how it went and Ryder won. He was the strongest in the three weeks. I did my best and I don't have any regrets."
Marco Pinotti won the final stage in 33:06, 39 seconds ahead of Britain's Geraint Thomas. It is the sixth stage victory for an Italian rider in this year's Giro, beating the country's 1974 record of five.
"This was a big goal for me," Pinotti said. "I won the last time trial here at the Giro in 2008 and I was second in 2010 and last year it was a big goal. But I crashed two days before and had to go to the hospital. So I've been working for this for a year. For me, it's been a difficult Giro."
Thomas De Gendt, who rode to a memorable solo win Saturday, put in another good performance to finish third overall, 1:39 behind Hesjedal. The Belgian had been 5:40 behind Rodriguez at the start of Stage 20.
Defending champion Michele Scarponi was fourth. It is the first time since 1995 that an Italian has not finished on the podium in the Giro, one of the sport's top three races with the Tour de France and the Spanish Vuelta. Two-time Giro winner Ivan Basso was fifth, 3:44 off the pace.
Taylor Phinney, who won the opening time trial in Denmark, took a wrong turn during the last stage and was forced to turn around. He finished the stage in 16th place in 34:37.
The final stage was shortened by about a mile because of road work.
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