COLUMN: Cycling popularity surge anticipated

Cycling should see a strong surge in popularity following Ryder Hesjedal’s historic win at one of the sport’s most important races.

Cycling should see a strong surge in popularity following Ryder Hesjedal’s historic win at one of the sport’s most important races last month.

The Victoria-born and raised pedaller won the Giro d’Italia on the race’s final day, making him the first Canadian ever to win one of cycling’s grand tours.

He previously grabbed national and international attention with a sixth place finish in the 2010 Tour de France, the best result for a Canadian since Steve Bauer’s fourth-place finish in 1988, but he’s been on cycling fans’ radar for more than a decade.

He began as a mountain biker, earning no shortage of honours both national and international before switching to road cycling.

It didn’t take long for him to grab attention on the skinny tires either – he was signed to the Discovery Channel team (led by some guy named Lance Armstrong) in 2004 and split his first year between the road and dirt.

In 2005, he was selected to ride for Discovery in the Giro and helped a teammate to the pink jersey worn by the overall winner.

Now that Hesjedal owns the pink jersey himself – he wore it for several days early in the three-week Italian tour before recapturing it in the final-stage time trial – he is a bona fide cycling star and one of the clear favourites for the yellow jersey (worn previously by only two Canadians – Bauer in ’88 and ’90 and Alex Stieda in ’86) if he rides this summer’s Tour de France.

Whether he even rides the fabled tour isn’t yet decided, as he soaks in his history-making win and tries to recover from that gruelling exercise.

Hesjedal’s escapades on pedals have kept my attention on road cycling despite disillusionment from the various doping scandals that plagued the pursuit.

If it weren’t for Hesjedal, I’d have stopped following cycling news entirely. Instead, I mostly just pay attention to how Ryder is riding.

Which, as was noted above, is plenty good. And with more good to come, no doubt.

I had the privilege of interviewing Hesjedal several times between 2004 and 2006 while covering Hesjedal’s hometown news. Even got to watch him train one day at the Juan de Fuca velodrome and was thoroughly impressed by his humble attitude and relentless work ethic.

True to form, immediately after his Giro win, he was giving ample credit for the victory to everyone from his teammates all the way down the line to the cooks and massage therapists.

He’s got all the tools to continue contending at the top, including, according to a new report this week, gargantuan lung capacity of 8.3 litres (compared to large-lung notable Miguel Indurain’s 7.8 litres and the Average Joe rider’s 5.7 litres) and bordering on masochist pain tolerance.

Add those to a commitment to training and teamwork and the recipe for a Canadian draped in yellow is looking better than ever.

My own fascination with cycling goes back to my days in training wheels. I got my first mountain bike in Grade 7, after much cajoling and probably whining to my parents, back in the 1980s as the sport was starting its ascension.

Road cycling was always on the radar, but really nabbed my attention when – who else – Mr. Armstrong took over the sport.

The fascination continues, with several bikes occupying the ‘gear storage’ area of the basement, including even one road bike that once saw semi-regular rides – both serious and commutes – but now is merely admired as a treasured object.

Now, with a Canadian again in the mix of the world’s premier pedallers and capturing widespread, front-page and top-story media coverage, it’s not unreasonable to expect participation in the sport to surge.

With recent reports on idle and obese youth, not to mention Bike to Work Week, there’s no better time.