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The sky may be the limit for Ryder Hesjedal of Victoria, who sits in sixth place as the Tour de France heads for the halfway mark this week. ((Bas Czerwinski/Associated Press) )

It must leave long-time cycling fans in Canada scratching their heads a bit, but Ryder Hesjedal is suddenly becoming something of an overnight sensation in his home country.

Not bad for a guy who was merely voted the nation's best rider for the first decade of this century in a poll conducted by the online magazine Canadian Cyclist.

Hesjedal, a 29-year-old Victoria native, is sixth in the Tour de France's overall standings (based on cumulative time) as the famous race heads for Wednesday's halfway point. He was as high as third overall, before the gruelling climb of the eighth stage spread out the field for the first time and left Hesjedal 14th for the day.

Still, sixth out of 186 surviving cyclists is finally catching the attention of fans and newcomers alike.

"The response on Twitter and my website from people across Canada has been phenomenal," Hesjedal told Cleve Dheensaw of the Victoria Times Colonist. "I've been overwhelmed by the support. It's huge, and for sure it gives you a lift."

Bauer still Canada's best

Ryder Hesjedal is the first Canadian to be near the top of the Tour de France in 15 years, but he has a long way to go to equal this country's all-time best.

Steve Bauer of St. Catharines, Ont., won a silver medal in the road race at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles before beginning an outstanding pro career.

From 1985 to 1995 he was in 11 consecutive Tour de France events, with a best finish of fourth in 1988.

He also wore the yellow jersey, as race leader, for five days that year, and had it for nine days in 1990.

Alex Stieda of Belleville, Ont., earned the yellow jersey on day two of the 1986 Tour, eventually finishing 120th.

Hesjedal, who began as a mountain biker (silver medal in the 2001 under-23 worlds), has been riding on the roads as a full professional since 2005. His best finishes were stage wins last season at the top level Giro d'Italia (Tour of Italy) and Vuelta a Espana (Tour of Spain).

Now a member of the Garmin Transitions squad, he began this year's Tour as a key supporter (domestique ) for team leader Christian Vande Velde — the guy everyone else helps towards the top of the standings.

But sports can hand you an opportunity when you're not looking.

In this instance, as Hesjedal was putting in a great stage three performance, leading for much of the way and earning the "most combative" jersey, Vande Velde was packing up, having suffered two broken ribs the day before.

Ryder now the team leader

Garmin Transitions sport director Matt White anointed the Canadian the team's new top man — their general classification rider, or someone who can battle for the yellow jersey (overall leader) and the race win.

Hesjedal responded by holding onto fourth through six stages and then moving up to third as the 3,642-kilometre Tour rolled into Station des Rousses to wrap up stage seven.

He was 14th in the long climb up the mountains in stage eight, dropping to sixth.

"Today was the first real selection of the Tour de France contenders," said White on Sunday. "It's safe to say that Ryder has done some of the rides of his life here, and today was no exception.

"Losing Christian was obviously a negative for the team, but it provided Ryder with an opportunity to step up into a [race leader] role and he's done it. I'm really proud of what he's accomplished here already and for now, we'll keep taking it day by day."

So is Hesjedal, who wanted nothing more on the rest day than to, well, rest.

"You have to keep your legs moving and can't shut down too much," he told the Times Colonist. "I'll get some physical therapy and also let my mind rest."

Then back to work.

Top names set the pace

Cadel Evans of Australia (twice a second-place finisher) leads the tour, with Andy Schleck of Luxembourg second and Spain's Alberto Contador, a two-time winner, next. Hesjedal sits a minute and 11 seconds back.

The Tour hits the halfway mark on Wednesday and it's already bitten a lot of riders, including American seven-time champion Lance Armstrong, who crashed three times on Sunday and is now out of the running.

A dozen riders have withdrawn with injuries as each day has brought mass crashes. Many others are nursing sores, including the other Canadian in the race, first-timer Michael Barry of Toronto, who has road rash "and cuts on my bum." He's well back, working as a domestique for Team Sky.

"Drama every day," Hesjedal said, of the race so far. "That's the beauty of this event. From Day 1 until the last day. Every day is important and every day has some story.

"Lots of drama."

Ahead lies another hard climb through the Swiss Alps that ends with a screaming descent to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne where those with the stoutest of hearts, and no real concern for their health, can really come to the fore.

After that, there are four more big climbs to go along with some flats where the sprinters like it and two more long descents before the finish in Paris on July 25.

"This is exciting for me," Hesjedal said. "We have a lot of racing to go. So we'll just see what unfolds and if the first week is remembered more than the last or the middle."

Barry has a good feel for how his former Canadian Olympic teammate can do.

"I think he can finish in the first 10," he said.

With files from Canadian Press