Garmin-Barracuda's Hesjedal overturned a 31-second deficit in the deciding 28km individual time trial to dethrone Katusha's Rodriguez at the top of the standings in what proved to be a nail-biting finale to the three-week stage race.
“It has been an unreal experience from day one – just unbelievable,” said 31-year-old Hesjedal before mounting the podium to receive the race winner’s famous maglia rosa.
“I couldn’t have done it without the team. I knew I was good when I came into the race. I stayed fresh and took every opportunity.The support, the fans at home, it’s all unreal. I’d like to thank everyone,” he added.
Hesjedal set the sixth-best time in the final time trial, which was won by Italy's Marco Pinotti (BMC) in a time of 33 minutes and six seconds.
Pinotti bettered Britain's Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) by 39 seconds over a flat and technical course, with New Zealand’s Jesse Sergent (RadioShack Nissan) taking third place, 53 seconds in arrears.
Rodriguez finished the stage 47 seconds slower than his rival Hesjedal and outside the top 20 to lose the pink jersey that he had worn since stage 15.
The thrilling duel between Rodriguez and Hesjedal provided the 95th edition of the Giro with a yo-yoing battle for more than two weeks.
Hesjedal wore the pink jersey for three days before Rodriguez’s stage 10 win in Assisi put the Spaniard into pole position.
But a late attack by Hesjedal on the Cat.1 climb to Cervinia in stage 14 saw the Canadian return to the race summit. Hesjedal’s second stint in pink lasted just a day, however – Rodriguez moving back into the maglia rosa after distancing his rival on the climb to Piani dei Resinelli.
Hesjedal cut the deficit from 30 seconds to 17 seconds after taking second place in stage 19 to Alpe di Pampeago, before Rodriguez increased the gap to 31 seconds on Saturday’s stage 20.
With Hesjedal stronger at time trial riding, the Canadian entered Sunday’s final ITT as the bookmakers’ favourite to make the decisive blow – and it seemed in the bag as early as the first time check in Milan, 12km into the course, which Hesjedal passed 29 seconds faster than Rodriguez.
“It’s like a dream. This whole race has been unbelievable. I have never been more focused on something in my life,” Hesjedal told Eurosport after being awarded the race trophy.
Runner-up Rodriguez took small consolation in winning the red jersey for the race’s points competition, finishing one slender point ahead of Britain’s Mark Cavendish (Team Sky).
A spirited ride by stage 20 winner Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM) saw the Belgian move onto the podium and take third place at the expense of defending champion Michele Scarponi (Lampre).
De Gendt rode into the history books on the penultimate stage when riding solo to the summit of the fabled Passe dello Stelvio to take one of the race’s most memorable wins in recent history.
“It’s a bit surreal. Three days ago I was battling for the top ten but now I’m on the podium. And it’s only my second Grand Tour. I fee very happy to be the first Belgian in 17 years to reach the podium of a Grand Tour,” said De Gendt.
Italians Scarponi and Ivan Basso (Liquigas) completed the final top five in the general standings, finishing 2:05 and 3:44 down respectively.
Colombian Rigoberto Uran (Team Sky) won the white jersey as the race's best young rider while Italian Matteo Rabottoni (Farnese Vini) won the blue mountains classification.