Cadel Evans flashback: one day in Mendrisio… (pt2)

Cadel’s Worlds (part 2)

 

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– the story of the 2009 world championships… (continued from part 01)  

 

Matters beyond Cadel’s control burdened him during the season. Well before racing commenced he prepared an itinerary that he felt would best suit his objectives. At the top of the list were two races: the Tour de France and the world championship. With these as the focus, everything else could be slotted in to ensure the best possible results from three weeks in July and the final Sunday of September. Not every problem was disastrous but he became overwhelmed; from team politics to equipment concerns to stupid incidents that took away the chance of victory despite all other elements falling into place.

“Chiara often said to me, ‘One day your honesty and effort will be repaid’. Boom! All of a sudden, it was.

“From when I got a gap after my attack, and onward to the finish, it was like I was living out a dream.”

What had kept him motivated for all these years – the hope that one day he could prove to himself that he was  the best in the world – became a reality in Mendrisio. He is the world champion. And he stood on the podium just three kilometres from his Swiss home with friends, neighbours and relatives all on hand to witness the occasion. Victory was his, achieved with good tactics, stunning teamwork and surety of his strength. He accepted and savoured it.

The images of Cadel on the podium show a man carefully surveying the scene as though his eyes were lenses and his mind was the hard drive that was uploading all that he saw before him. It needed to be recognised and appreciated, otherwise it  might have seemed like just another sequence generated by his imagination. But this time it was real.

“It’s a sickening feeling that you have on the podium, when you’re standing there in second or third place and the guy next to you is putting on the rainbow jersey. I’ve had that often.”

In 2009 it was a different sensation altogether. Still, he maintained his GC Guy approach. “Honestly, I woke up at 3.00am the morning after the race and I was pissed off at myself; I thought I had a race to ride. I thought, ‘Shit, my recovery is going to be compromised.’ It took a moment to dawn on me: ‘That’s right, I’ve already done the race.’

“That’s what can happen after a three-week stage race. I got so used to waking up and thinking about what I had to do. On this day, I realised it had already been run and won and… oh, that’s the rainbow jersey hanging there on the wall!

“On the Monday after winning, I went riding to clear my head but I didn’t ride with the rainbow jersey on. I only had one, so I went in my normal kit. It was really just another day. My life has not changed one little bit and that’s just fine. I do have a nice jersey and a gold medal hanging in my apartment and, amongst my little family of friends and supporters, I’m very satisfied with our efforts this year.”

Only a year earlier the world championships had been contested in Varese, Italy, around 20 kilometres from Mendrisio. Back in 2008 Cadel opted out of the national team for that race. He was tired from the Tour, suffering a ligament injury that made walking difficult – “but I could still ride my bike effectively” – and he’d been to China for the Olympics. His preparation was not as he would have liked, so a forfeit seemed the best solution for the world championships.

In 2009 he was adamant that the worlds course suited him and it was because of this that he ended up having conflict with one of the key advisors of his road cycling career. When races were being selected by the Silence-Lotto team, Cadel believed that the best approach would be one similar to 2007 when he was second in the Tour, fourth in the Vuelta a España and fifth in the race for the rainbow jersey. Judging by his consistency, this was an approach that worked. But the team was not so sure; the management wanted to send him to the Giro d’Italia and, with the centenary edition of the Italian race out of the way, switch focus to “project maglia gialla”.

This was the working title for Roberto Damiani and Cadel when they discussed winning the Tour de France. The Italian directeur sportif had been a close confidant of the rider since they worked together at Mapei in 2002. “The idea of riding the Giro is something I really liked. I would have loved to do it,” said Cadel about the suggestion, “but my goals were the Tour and world championship. My best preparation for the worlds was to ride the Vuelta. And it proved correct.

“My best result for the year came from riding the Vuelta and finishing third on GC. I just stuck to that.”

Cadel was adamant about his approach. He made up his mind during a mini-break at the end of 2008 when he returned to Australia after a long season of racing. He had some time to think. While relaxing on Magnetic Island, in a rare few days alone with his wife and without a bike, he reflected on the previous two years and decided the Tour/Vuelta/worlds formula would work best.

 

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“After the worlds, I read that it was Marc Sergeant who convinced me to ride the Vuelta,” said Cadel about an interview with the Silence-Lotto team manager. “‘And didn’t it work out well?’ Jesus, if only they knew how hard I had to fight to not ride the Giro and do the program I wanted. Of course, because I didn’t ride in Italy, everything that went wrong in the team from that point onwards was apparently all my fault.

“I had to wear this all year. Leading up to the Tour, in the Tour, after the Tour, leading into the Vuelta… and by then I couldn’t even discuss my own race program. I eventually got it to be the way I wanted it and the results tell the story. I came pretty close to winning the Vuelta as well as the worlds.

“All along I had to fight for that. But once my opinion was heard, it put a bit of pressure on me to perform: ‘Shit,’ I thought, ‘I’ve got to win the Vuelta and the world championship!’”

He lobbied hard to get his professional team to acquiesce to his wishes, and then came the challenge to convince the Australian squad that he deserved leadership status. “We had a meeting on the Friday before the worlds and I came out of it thinking about what had been said. I checked with Simon Clarke who I’d been sharing a room with for the week. I wanted to get his take. ‘Have I misinterpreted: Simon Gerrans is the protected leader and I’m here ‘just in case’. Is that right?’

“Simon said, ‘Yeah, that’s what I understood as well.’

“So I went to see Neil Stephens the next day. I said, ‘Hey, do you have any faith in me to do a good result in this race?’

“‘Yeah, yeah. I do, but Simon is the most complete all-round rider. If it comes down to one-on-one at the end, then you’re going to be the man.’

“‘Am I a protected rider or not?’

“‘Ah,’ said Neil, ‘Simon Gerrans is the main guy but…’”

One week before the world championships Cadel Evans had become the first Australian rider to finish on the podium of the Vuelta a España. He finished 1:32 behind the winner Alejandro Valverde, but had lost 1:33 to the Spaniard on stage 13 because of a terrible wheel change by a neutral service crew after a puncture at a crucial moment, just before the summit of the penultimate climb on the road to Sierra Nevada.

Before that Cadel had led the GC and only lost the maillot oro because of time bonuses. The day after he slipped to second in the overall rankings, Simon Gerrans won a stage with cunning tactics after having been part of an escape group of 19 riders. There was a reason these two Aussies shared leadership duties in Mendrisio: one is the most consistent rider of his generation, the other a proven winner. Gerrans has won stages in the Tour, Giro and Vuelta; he had form and was fresh off a ProTour victory in the GP Plouay on 23 August.

A road race can take so many directions. Reading the right move is one thing a rider must do, being able to respond to the surges is another. Without team support it’s nearly impossible. Both Evans and Gerrans had the necessary ingredients to make their odds in this lottery a little higher than most of the other 202 men in the race. They were part of a nine-man team – the maximum allowed in the championships – achieved thanks to Australia’s third place in the world rankings. Only seven other squads had this tally: Italy, Spain, Germany, Russia, Belgium, Norway and Britain.

The Italians had the defending gold and silver medallists, Alessandro Ballan and Damiano Cunego. The 2008 champion had won the Tour of Poland in the first week of August, while the tifosi’s ‘Little Prince’ was in even better shape. Cunego had won two mountain stages of the Vuelta and arrived in Mendrisio as the designated captain of an elite and proven group.

 

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La Vuelta had also been good for the Spaniards; first and second from the GC rankings were present and ready. Valverde can climb and sprint. He was a danger man in a 19-lap race on a 13.8km route with a total of 4,655m of altitude gain and, of course, the perilous descents that are part of a circuit. He was still on cloud nine after taking the golden jersey in Madrid but also under a cloud of doubt at a championships at which he was not fully welcome. The UCI was still considering what to do after CONI’s action to suspend Valverde because of evidence of his association with the Operaciòn Puerto investigation. Some wanted him to be persona non grata in Mendrisio.

Still, the rider who took the Vuelta lead in Murcia – where he’s from – on the day Cadel finished outside the time bonuses and kept it all the way to the finish was in Switzerland.

So too was Samuel Sanchez, the Olympic champion and a rider who had the strength to demand co-leadership of the Spanish squad. They had a triple world champion in Oscar Freire alongside for support and the ever-present domestique Joaquin Rodriguez of Caisse d’Epargne fame but destined for a new role with Team Katusha next year.

The Italians, Belgians and Spaniards all had the experience of having won world championship road races. Until that day in Mendrisio, however, the best Australian result was Robbie McEwen’s silver medal in 2002. That was in a sprint but the course in Mendrisio suited a different kind of rider. This was a race of attrition, one where the strongest in the field could step forward and ride everyone off his wheel. That’s exactly what Cadel did at the crucial moment.

This was a result that silenced a lot of cynics. Cadel attacked and that did help him win the race, but there is a lot more to the story than this observation alone. To take the offensive in a race you’ve got to be able to attack. “My undoing has not come from the way I am or the way I go about things,” Cadel told me two days after the race in a discussion before we put down the final words for Close To Flying. He insisted on trying to clarify his take on what made winning so difficult for him. Of course he is strong – his statistics tell that story – but it is how this translates in a race environment that is key.

He was a world champion by then. He had reason to purge himself of the frustration of years of close calls and move on from the sequences replayed in his mind of how he almost won the Tour de France, or his collapse while in the lead of the Giro d’Italia, or the victory he saw slip away from him in the final 16km of the Vuelta a España’s 13th stage.

 

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Cadel’s world is a complex one. He is a bike rider, a special breed – a GC Guy who has reason to dream of winning races that make up cycling’s history – and now he can add the line to his résumé that had been missing until now.

He is still frustrated. And even though he didn’t show it as he crossed the line, he was happy. He hopes people understand why this is so special to him. “In races, my undoing is not because I’m not strong enough or not good enough, it’s because people know that I am so I can’t do anything.

“If I go in a break, the two or three strongest teams in the race panic and close the move down straight away. Being strong and having so many years of consistently good results, everyone is watching every move. That’s held me back.”

Fabian Cancellara was on a team that didn’t have the full contingent of nine but he was a force of his own accord. And he had the support of significant allies because of his standing in the peloton. He was feared because he is so dominant. This is the rider who, with others yet to finish behind him in the time trial, was audacious enough to throw a two-handed salute for the length of the final straight as he easily set a time that was faster than all other challengers. He threw kisses to the crowd and celebrated like a winner from the host nation is expected to. Red squares with white crosses littered the course. Swiss flags were everywhere in Mendrisio and for good reason: at last they had a real hope for the title. Vai Fabio, vai!

This was a guy who wanted to hold Cadel back. He was the rider who chastised the Australian during the Tour de France. There were moments when they offered praise to each other but scorn also appeared in the heat of the battle when ‘Spartacus’ was involved. It was Cancellara who beat Evans by 23 seconds on day one of the Tour de France; the Swiss gladiator had such strength that he was 18 seconds faster on the time trial course in Monaco at the start of July. All the GC guys were separated by far less time: Alberto Contador, Bradley Wiggins, Andreas Klöden and Cadel had just five seconds between them. But the yellow jersey would be held by Fabian until stage seven.

The next day, when the Tour raced away from Andorra and back to France over the second-highest pass of the 2009 edition – the 2,408m high port d’Envalira – Cadel ignited the action. He knew it was too early in the race for it to be a winning move but it was a moment when the domineering Astana squad was not in control at the front of the peloton. “The one time when I did go in the breakaway, it made sense,” he explained. It was a move that was shut down but only after Evans had been on the attack for 50km… and only because he was in the move.

“He saw a chance to get in the break and maybe take back the yellow jersey,” suggested Cadel who copped a verbal spray from Fabian who later joined the move. “Whatever.”

He was undeterred by the taunts. He looked straight ahead, kept his place in the paceline, did strong turns that increased the advantage over the Astana-led bunch, and concentrated on what he was trying to do at the time: win the Tour de France. Meanwhile, Spartacus continued issuing his demands: “This isn’t going to work if you’re here. Go back to the peloton!”

“Excuse me. I got myself in the move. It was you who came to the breakaway later,” said Cadel about his response. “I won’t repeat exactly the words I said to him but they weren’t very friendly. People try everything they can to get me out of the break. They do what they can to protect their interests.”

It’s all part of the game.

“You understand,” Cadel later reiterated, “that exactly the thing that makes me successful is also my undoing?”

 

Months after the Tour, Cancellara claimed a third rainbow jersey from the time trial, matching the tally of Mick Rogers (who, until Cadel’s triumph in Mendrisio, had been the only Australian to have won a senior world title in a road event). But Fabian still had another medal on his wish list. The road race course was considered too tough for sprinters but that didn’t necessarily mean it was one for the climbers.

This was a race for the strong men; a contest that lasted almost seven hours and one in which the winner would need a mix of power, good tactics and support from team-mates. This time Cadel had it all. On Thursday 24 September, both he and Rogers forfeited their places in the TT, opting to save their energy for the road race. This was the title that had eluded a nation on the rise in the world of cycling.

Australia had the perfect start to the world championships. Jack Bobridge won the first title in Mendrisio, the time trial for the ‘espoirs’ – the under-23 ‘hopes’. This was no coincidental victory but one achieved by a man determined to squeeze every ounce of power from his body from start to finish. He led at every check and demonstrated that the nation which had once scraped together enough riders to compete at this level was now able to be at the top of the medal table. “Keep your eye on this kid,” warned Stuart O’Grady about Bobridge in March 2008.

“He is very good… focused, talented and smart. He listens to advice, is straighter than Robin Hood’s arrow and has an engine like a V12 turbo,” said O’Grady in RIDE #40. A few months after turning 20, Jack was wearing a rainbow jersey. Next year he makes his debut with the Garmin pro team and he will be a major asset when the worlds come to Australia.

One year before the championships descend on Melbourne and Geelong, Australians controlled the race for the rainbow jersey of the men’s road race with panache and without panic. The Italians were aggressive, the Spaniards attentive. Belgians cheered when their ‘Tommeke’ put himself in an escape group. Germans and Russians animated the action. A Swiss Spartacus surged on the penultimate climb but that’s when the GC Guy came to the fore. Cadel responded when the numbers for this lottery were being called out. Alexandr Kolobnev and Joaquin Rodriguez thinned out the front group until only three remained. The final rise, however, was still ahead.

At the base of the Novazzano ascent Cadel rose from his saddle, attacked and rode off into a dream.

“Simon Clarke was assigned to look after me,” explained the winner about how the race unfolded. “When the big group went and we had four riders at the front, only Mick Rogers followed the move and there were four Italians in the front and they started to ride. Neil then made the decisive call of the race. When there were four Italians and two Spaniards up front, the weight of numbers didn’t stack up on our side. Neil told the boys to start chasing. I’m really sorry for Mick but that’s racing. The Australian team then took control of the peloton.

“Having Simon with me in the race was sensational. But the rider who impressed me more than anyone was Wes Sulzberger. I couldn’t believe how good he was. He rode and rode and rode. Got dropped. Got back on. Rode. Got dropped. He took feeds, gave me feeds. He went to the front and worked. It was like he would never run out of energy.

“I looked at my computer and we had done 205km and he was still riding on the front. He’s at the world championships and making experienced guys look like amateurs. Chapeau!

“Eventually he came back to me and said, ‘Man, just give it to ’em. I’m finished.’ He gave me a last little push, just as we hit the Acqua Fresca on the third-last lap, and then I didn’t see him again. But he put in a most impressive ride.”

These were Cadel’s worlds. It was his time. But we’ll leave the closing statement to his colleague for the day, Wes Sulzberger. “Cadel being world champion has to spur on some Australian companies. We are ranked third in the world, have a world champ but no pro team in the biggest league. Australian Cycling is about to take a big leap, especially when we win the 2010 Tour de France. Go Cadel!”

 

– Rob Arnold

 

 

 

Author: rob@ride

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