98th Tour de France – An Australian 1st
With a new issue of RIDE Cycling Review out on 24 November (#54 – Volume 04, 2011) it’s time to remember one of the events that helped bring cycling into the spotlight in Australia this year. Below is the main feature of RIDE #53, an essay about the achievements of the 2011 Australian Cyclist of the Year, Cadel Evans. His victory in the Tour de France has prompted nominations for a wide range of other awards, including Australian of the Year…
There are all sorts of precedents in sport. That’s what makes it fascinating. People can achieve amazing things and inspire others with an effort that observers realise they cannot replicate. What Cadel Evans did in France in July 2011 will be remembered for a very long time. His victory reminds us that there’s every reason to be optimistic about cycling.
This was a success a long time in coming. To understand what the victory by Cadel Evans means, it’s important to retrace some steps he took before reaching the top of the Tour de France’s podium.
Words: Rob Arnold
On the left bank of the Seine lay a garden bed with the stump of an old tree. A rotting root snaked the length of a person’s body before disappearing into the ground. Beside it lay a man with a dark mop of hair covering his eyes while he slept in the bright sunlight. His right arm hung loosely over the root and his leg was snug against it in the pose of lovers spooning. Just near his head, an open bottle of super-market rouge with only a finger’s depth left. On the wall beside where he lay was a stencilled black word that had been painted over a white oblong and it carried a message that was a total contrast to the scene.
“Keep your hope.”
Had he rolled over and opened his eyes, he could have seen the Musée de Louvre. But there was little life left in this soul. Only a gentle snore could be heard. And the vision was a sombre one, a reminder of where one may be if luck doesn’t quite go the right way.
All around Paris that day people were managing hangovers and coming to terms with the end of another bike race.
It was the Monday after the Tour de France. This is no ordinary day. It’s a time for reflection, an opportunity to take a breath, consider the events of the previous three weeks and – for those involved – begin to reintegrate into ordinary life.
The man spooning the tree root may well have stood on the Champs-Elysées only a handful of hours earlier surveying a mass of people swooning over the presentation of a jersey made of yellow lycra. Thousands of others had done so. And many travelled great distances to see this happen. The shirt represents a status many desire but few attain.
The maillot jaune. This is what transfixes a rare breed of bike rider. It’s a symbol of success at the highest level of a sport with a long history and an event that is part of French culture. And it’s now significant in distant lands. The face of the man who wore the yellow jersey on the final podium of the 2011 Tour de France is now known. Cadel Evans is now a household name in Australia. He is a recognisable figure, a person who attracts attention no matter what he does. And it’s his ability on the bicycle that has made this happen. There are no others like him, for this is a true individual in every sense of the word. A driven personality with a yearning to excel in the profession he chanced upon because he discovered cycling at the start of his teenage years. He has taken the sport to the mainstream and made it something that Australians recognise as not only an enjoyable visual experience but a pastime with merit and positive attributes.
It wasn’t always the case. This young man who has ridden a bike for a living for 20 years is now recognised as a winner, he’s a champion of the Tour de France. It’s a rare title bestowed only on the very elite of the cycling stratosphere.
“A few people always believed in me,” he said within minutes of crossing the finish line of the 3,430km race that took him a little over 86 hours to complete, but it was a journey that lasted two decades. “I believed in me.
“Those few people – my family and a few others around me – are what matter the most. And here we are… we did it.
“I have to reflect on it a bit,” Evans continued as he tried to conjure the words to explain what impact his result will have. “It’s been such a focus – day by day – to get here. But not just this month; but month by month, year by year – it’s been a long, long process and it will be a long realisation to take in exactly what has happened but it’s been a real pleasure, this whole three weeks.
“For me, the real highlight of it all was the last three or four kilometres of the time trial. The hardest bits had been done until that point and coming into the finish [in Grenoble at the end of stage 20] but I knew we were on the right track.”
Cadel Evans has been in and out of the yellow jersey before this year. For five days in 2008 he led the Tour de France. His advantage over Fränk Schleck in the general classification from the end of stage 10 to the start of stage 16 was just one second. And back then, one year on from finishing second overall by just 23 seconds to Alberto Contador, Evans’ hope of winning was put on hold. At Alpe d’Huez in 2008, the 95th edition of the Tour, he lost the title. Hesitation cost him the win although he’s blamed numerous other aspects – from injuries caused by crashes to a lack of team support to cunning tactics from rivals’ formations with numerous leadership options and murmurings of other causes… he’s got a long list of reasons. All of them are legitimate complaints in their own right. He can back up his claims and has done so often when reflecting on what might have been Australia’s first Tour triumph, but Cadel prefers to forget his failures.
Looking back the 95th Tour de France – which, contrary to tradition, began without a time trial to establish a pecking order of those actually capable of aiming for victory – there was reason to be satisfied. He came close to winning stages in 2008 but never did, still he was the most regular performer of all in the general classification standings. Cadel is consistent. It’s one of many strengths and he was the only rider who remained in the top 10 of the GC standings all the way through the race three years ago. In the general classification for three weeks his status was impressive. Broken down after each day it was remarkable: sixth, fifth, ninth, fourth, second, second, second, second, first, first, first, first, first, third, third, fourth, fourth, fourth, fourth, second… and, ultimately, second.
Damn it! While his luck ran out at the halfway mark he lost the Tour with just one day to go. But he never lost hope.
The analysis begins immediately after a contest and steps are put in place to ensure the errors of the past are not repeated. At the Silence-Lotto team he had the support of many great people but two in particular were pivotal in making Evans the rider he has become: Hendrik Redant and David Bombeke. These Belgians turned the Australian into a genuine “GC guy”, a rider capable of taking on the best in the world and proving that he too is one of the strongest riders of his generation. There was never any doubt. Even the non-believers realised that Evans was a force on the bike, a powerhouse with all-round ability, a natural gift that had never been squandered. While others of his ilk suffered because of the trappings of fame and fortune, the only child of divorced parents refused to settle for second best. Complacency is not just annoying, it genuinely upsets him.
If someone is not doing all they can to achieve their goal, they are wasting time. He was someone with equal measures of “Experience. Motivation. Capability”.
This is his EMC theory.
“Daydreamers,” he wrote in a catalogue of thoughts back in 2008, “be careful of them; they don’t know the difference between dreams and reality.”
For Evans the only approach is one hundred per cent. If you can’t achieve the best, then stop bloody wasting his time!
His hand-jotted notes that overviewed his theories are punctuated by arrows between words that steer his line of thought from one topic to the next. In tight handwriting that switches from lower-case to upper-case in correlation to his enthusiasm for the subject, he relates how he sees the life of a “GC guy” and what the formula for success is.
Attitude towards winning.
– Everyday every minute counts. – The same attitude/mentality is used in preparing for the Tour in 2008.
– Attention to details:
• A consistent ongoing ‘visualisation’ for racing.
– Being prepared for all situations in competition/training (to a lesser extent), journalists and their questions.
He has reinvented himself often. From a mountain biker to a road cyclist, potential winner to runner-up, “failure” – in his own appraisal – to champion. But each step of the way his emotions are high and his expectations even higher. It adds up to a unique individual who, for all his foibles, has been able to inspire a nation like few other athletes have ever been able to do. Evans is not just a complete bike rider, he’s a person in demand and someone who many believe has all the right components to be the voice of a clean new generation of cyclists.
He is a professional bike rider in every sense of the word. It’s his job and his obsession. And anything that gets in the way of him achieving the goals he’s set for himself is a distraction that must be eliminated.
At BMC he has found The Perfect Environment.
The US-registered, Swiss-backed team is a dream come true for Cadel Evans. The management not only accept his single-focus approach, they nurture it and respond to it. John Lelangue has succeeded where many a good man has failed before. The Belgian has extracted every ounce of potential and driven on to the Champs-Elysées toasting a successful three weeks riding around France. He got to work with an inspired Evans but it was no coincidence. All that happened before the pair began their collaboration contributed to them understanding exactly what was required from one another before they even knew that it would be possible. Their hopes were in sync.
The collaboration began just after the rot had started to set in at Silence-Lotto. The cracks in the relationship with Silence-Lotto were growing wider with every transaction at the end of 2008 and it grew worse throughout the first six months of 2009. That season started poorly and relationships that had once been good were disintegrating. Cadel’s respect for the directeur sportif he once revered, Roberto Damiani, turned to disdain when the Italian suggested – publicly – that Evans should race the Giro d’Italia as part of the lead-up to the Tour de France a year after he’d finished runner-up for a second time. The bike supplier changed as well, and an infuriated rider started to believe that commercial reality was getting in the way of his ambitions.
How could he win the Tour without the right lead-up races? He respects the Giro but Evans has never been the sort of rider who could just turn up to an event and use it – abuse it – as part of a preparation program. If he rides, he wants to do his best and the suggestion that he should do the Italian Grand Tour was seen as treason. Particularly as it was announced – first by Damiani and subsequently by the director of the Giro, Angelo Zomengan – with no consultation.
Before that debacle, there was the matter of equipment: his bikes are the tools he needs to achieve his goals and if they’re not perfect then… well, they’re not perfect. If he can’t find the right position on his time trial bike, how can he possibly use it to make up time on his rivals? Already he had compromised himself by accepting what he believed to be inferior wheels and a handlebar configuration that was, at best, a makeshift remedy when it should have been crafted to suit his every whim.
Never mind the fact that, in 2007 and 2008, the Belgian brand Ridley had invested significant sums to improve the aerodynamics of the frame because of his requests, for Cadel believed other riders had better equipment at their disposal. So when Michael Rich, himself an Olympic time trial champion and multiple medallist in the same discipline at the world championship level, arrived in Stabio in his new role as a representative of Canyon bicycles, there was further disgust. “Well, that won’t do,” commented Evans after first sighting the TT bike that his team’s new supplier had proposed he use.
By July, however, Evans appeared at the start of the Tour de France in good spirits and in the form of his life. He fought hard to get the program he wanted, eventually escaping the obligation to contest the Giro – but not without a battle with management that was conducted with virtually no face-to-face consultation but mainly email exchanges, with intermittent calls from team manager Marc Sergeant; one of many who were becoming exasperated by the Australian’s antics.
Still, they persisted. And they did so for a simple reason: Cadel Evans could win the Tour de France.
It wasn’t enough. And, for the first time, he experienced what it was like to not get better at the Tour. The team time trial of stage four in Montpellier was a disaster; Silence-Lotto could only conjure 13th place, giving Evans a disadvantage of 2:36 to the winning formation, Astana, which boasted both Contador and Lance Armstrong (who was back in the race after a three year hiatus). This pair had issues of their own to manage but they finished first and third overall in the year Evans was never really in the hunt for the yellow jersey. His best position in the general classification for the entire three weeks was fifth, and that was after day one. Ironically, he his deficit was 23 seconds.
In 2009, Evans was arguably the best bike rider on the planet but he was far from the most popular. Team-mates cringed at some things he did, some held their tongues but others couldn’t contain their frustration. Still, they were professionals who were contracted to do their jobs… some only begrudgingly while others simply did the minimum to help although they had previously sacrificed personal glory for Cadel’s benefit.
What had started out awkwardly, went from bad to worse and midway through the 2009 Tour alternative employment arrangements were sought. Evans still had another year on his contract with the Belgian squad but he was prepared to change teams even if it meant suffering a short-term financial loss in favour of the long-term benefit of finding a team which would adhere to his requirements, offer him some respect and manage the formidable resource of his strength and conviction better than Sergeant and Silence-Lotto.
There was no animosity from either Redant or Damiani. No matter what Evans says about “believers” – past, present or future – these two directeurs sportif are part of the group who never doubted his ability. They sacrificed plenty to help and never asked for anything in return. Like many others in the life of Cadel Evans, the two gentlemen supported and nurtured the rider because they understood that his intentions were pure – he may have had trouble expressing himself at times but they put that aside in favour of trying to assist him at every turn.
The events of July 2009 changed everything. This was the low point of a career which had only ever progressed. Suddenly Evans had taken a backward step and it was unbearable.
Lelangue has won the Tour de France as a team manager before, but he’s also lost it. No one else has this claim. It’s a monumental blight on what is an otherwise impressive career as a directeur sportif. The Floyd Landis victory lasted only a few days before the celebrations ceased. Many months later, an asterisk appeared and a denotation was added to the archives that related to testosterone, but there was much more to it than the detection of a substance alone.
It was an act of bastardry and the charade continued for some time before the cheat confessed his sins and freed himself of the burden that is the tax of dishonesty. Floyd has established himself as a campaigner for truth now, and he has since given an answer to the question posed on the cover of RIDE #34 – and that was, quite simply: “Floyd. Honestly?”
That’s all we wanted to know. Tell us the truth. How did it come to be that you were disqualified after winning the Tour? What happened? How did this result appear? He has said a lot since effectively admitting to winning a race at a time when he was active in a considered, well-funded doping regimen that had until that point escaped detection of any kind.
The headline of RIDE’s review of the 2006 Tour de France was: “Hope Fades – Floyd: Fabulous fable or a failed fight?”
The fight wasn’t a failure but it was a fable. We know this now and it’s time to move on. We can now celebrate a victory that comes without a legal clause and a big, nasty *… as, on the page after the opener, the summary of Landis’ win carried the sub-headline: “Triumph*”. Sad, but that’s what it was and still is today. It was a lost Tour. A race that was great to watch and carried all the hope of a new era – a post-Lance renaissance of cycling. That’s what the Tour was meant to be in 2006. And then another reminder emerges from the archives, for the cover of RIDE #35 featured a man we believe in.
The first issue of 2007 stated: “A Cycling Renaissance.”
It was a portrait of Cadel Evans in his new Predictor-Lotto kit taken by Tom Putt in his home in Barwon Heads on the same day he received the outfit with the name of a team that had, finally – officially – been transformed from a sprinter’s team to one for the GC guy.
Robbie McEwen’s time as the leader of the squad ended in 2006. The dossard at the Tour de France ending with a “1”, passed from one Australian to another at the Belgian team. Instead of Robbie it was Cadel who earned true leadership status even though the Queenslander had won the green jersey for the third time. Evans was fifth. And then fourth, thanks to Floyd, and he was beginning to realise that his time had come. With two Tours done, it was time for the podium and that’s what Predictor-Lotto (and then Silence-Lotto) set out to do.
That’s why, at the beginning of the third season in which he would contest the Tour, RIDE carried his portrait and asked: “Cadel Evans – is this Australia’s first Tour de France winner?”Again, the answer has been presented.