Cadel Evans Interview – From 2008 Tour Guide
“When people ask me what my job is, I tell them honestly: to win the Tour de France. And that’s what I have to concentrate on.” Cadel Evans leads a new generation hoping to finish the world’s biggest race wearing the maillot jaune. The runner-up in 2007 and 179 other riders are ready to open a new era on fascinating streets that lead the peloton from Brest in Brittany, over mountain passes and onward to the famed Champs-Elysées in the French capital.
In this exclusive interview the Australian explains why he’s racing to win. We consider his chances and profile some of his rivals.
Words: Rob Arnold
“Things haven’t fallen into place of late but sometimes that’s not a bad thing at this time of year,” observed Cadel Evans 10 days before the Criterium du Dauphiné Libéré, a week-long stage race in June. This was the final test before lining up for his fourth Tour de France. It seemed as though he was about to launch into an explanation of how a hint of tendonitis that had started to stir below his left knee was hindering his build-up. Then he clarified: “Sometimes little things slow your progress for a reason. But it’s all coming together.”
His comment came on the sixth anniversary of the day he wore the maglia rosa in the Giro d’Italia. This brief stint in the lead of his first Grand Tour alerted many to his potential. It was a moment of possible glory that turned into a spectacular collapse. He will hate seeing the topic raised once again and will, no doubt, ask: isn’t it time to move on? Absolutely. But it’s a story worth retelling because it confirms his opening statement.
Had Cadel not suffered 14 minutes of humiliation as he struggled to turn the pedals on the Passo Coe ascent in stage 17 of the 2002 Giro, things would be completely different now. Had he not lost 14 minutes in seven kilometres of climbing, he would have won the race. And had that happened, he would have been fast-tracked to a debut in the Tour. Sometimes little things slow your progress for a reason. Too true.
But now it is all coming together. He was forced to spend two years in limbo after he became what some called a “surprise leader” of the Italian three-week race. To those who knew him back then, however, it simply seemed like destiny catching up with him. Since his teenage years it’s been said that he possesses the potential to be the first Australian to win the Tour de France. And he almost did.
Last year only 23 seconds separated him from this forecast becoming a reality. If time bonuses awarded to stage winners hadn’t existed in the 94th edition, Cadel’s deficit would have been a paltry four seconds. It’s interesting to note, although not relevant. All of us could put a clause in a sentence and conclude it by stating how different life would be.
Here are a few Tour related examples. Laurent Fignon would have won the title in 1989 if he’d had aerobars like those Greg LeMond used and the drag of his long hair blowing in the breeze hadn’t slowed him down by eight seconds. Michael Rasmussen would have won the Tour last year if he hadn’t been dishonest. Wim Vansevenant would have won the Tour in 2007 if 140 riders hadn’t finished in front of him. And so on.
Cadel doesn’t like talking about his collapse on the Coe, or why he hasn’t won the Tour before, or if he will win it now.
He’s working on the presumption that it’s possible to create a bit of Australian sporting history. He has the support and all he can do now is wait for the race to start and give it his best shot. “The team is much more focused, dedicated and motivated, both on the side of the riders and the staff. The whole team is focused,” he said. “We can win so let’s try.”
It’s a pretty simple mission statement. The fundamentals of what’s required for success are not complex either. The job description? Get around France faster than any other rider granted the privilege of racing on the same course at the same time. Being good enough to do just that is more complicated than most of us could possibly imagine. Thanks to the minor hiccups that have slowed his progress, Evans is aware that he can win the race. Before it was just talk. And hyperbole is something that irritates him now more than ever before.
“I just work towards the Tour. All I can do is race it and see what unfolds. What is said beforehand is nothing more than hearsay. I have to be in the race. I have to see who is good and to see how I feel, how the race evolves, before I can know exactly what direction it’s going to take.
“I get the feeling people are looking at me like I’m a crystal ball and I know exactly what’s going to happen.”
He can ride a bike well. That’s his main talent and thanks to this, the 31-year-old has become disciplined enough to do all the other things that contribute to a winning equation. He understands the importance of all the “little things”. If you’re going to win the Tour, nothing can be left to chance and there’s no room for complacency. That could add up to 23 seconds, although he doesn’t like to talk about this either.
Standing on the podium in Paris is what riders dream of. The chance that it may happen is a catalyst to bother with every element that needs to be considered. From training to diet to sleep and all else in between, it’s all important. Yet when you believe you can win and you then finish second, even in the world’s biggest race, it’s an anticlimax. When he was in the centre of the Champs-Elysées, his mind was on other matters. Rather than recognise the impact he was having on a nation of recent converts to cycling, Cadel was thinking of pizza.
It was only when he returned home that the extent of what he’d achieved five months earlier started to sink in.
He’s only in Australia briefly each summer but it’s time the proud Australian relishes. The off-season lasts just a matter of weeks, less than the average worker’s annual leave, and it’s valuable time for recuperation. It didn’t take long for Cadel to appreciate the appreciation many of his compatriots had of his achievements in France last July. And he promptly amended his schedule to include as many functions as possible.
His latest visit put him in the spotlight. He had special moments last summer such as carrying the Melbourne Cup onto the track at Flemington one Tuesday in November when there were a lot of people looking on. It exposed the bike to many who wouldn’t otherwise care less about it.
It was another gesture by Evans that introduced people to cycling. That’s what makes him proud. It motivates him. It’s something he wants to keep doing because it’s satisfying.
“I’ve always been a fan of cycling and I’d like to think that I can promote the sport a bit, particularly in Australia,” is his reaction to the statement that his result affected people with Tour fever. “Personally, that’s more satisfying to me than getting second at the Tour.
“The appreciation people have for our sport, and for my efforts in the Tour, was gratifying. You have to remember that second is not winning. For someone who is focused on doing well, second is not what you’re after.”
History suggests that the rider in second is often more popular than the winner. Jacques Anquetil’s battles against Raymond Poulidor in the 1960s are what made the streets of France so fascinating for the locals. Although the race between the two champions was compelling, first place always went to the man who was far less revered by the public than the perennial runner-up. In French vernacular Poulidor retains meaning, but Anquetil equates to something for the record books.
Most of us have done a Poulidor at some time, being very good but falling short of the ultimate reward. If it were in the dictionary, that’s how it would be described. Does it have noble connotations because of the sense of humility? Or is it just that more of us can relate to it? When it comes to Cadel, he appreciates being given the platform to voice his concerns although popularity is not his motivation. What he wants to do is be very good and, this year in particular, not fall short. Certainly not by a meagre margin like 23 seconds!
From the support cast of eight riders who were part of the Predictor-Lotto squad in 2007, six will return to help Cadel in his quest for the yellow jersey. Despite the familiar faces, there is one big change for the Belgian-registered team. The Aussie’s right-hand man in the mountains, Chris Horner, has moved on. He joined Astana with the intention of racing the Tour with the defending champion who’d shifted to the Kazakh-sponsored, Luxembourg-registered line-up that former Discovery Channel team manager Johan Bruyeneel is now in charge of.
Politics dictate that Horner’s plans won’t come to fruition. Astana is not welcome back at the Tour, not for this year at least. Although an entirely new structure has been put in place at Contador’s team, the previous incarnation of the team was responsible for sullying the race’s reputation. Despite all that was done to ensure a clean contest, the Kazakh leader who “beat” Evans in the time trial of stage 13, Alexandre Vinokourov, failed a doping control that day in Albi. He was promptly booted out of the race along with his colleagues, two of whom were in the top 10 of general classification at the time.
What were Cadel’s emotions surrounding his win in Albi? “I considered that I’d won a long time before I was officially awarded it. Then I got the email from the UCI and one from (the president) Pat McQuaid, a personal note, which was nice of him. About three weeks later it came out in the news. It was about six months since I’d actually won it.
“It’s something that happened over such a long period. It wasn’t like we cracked open the champagne to celebrate.”
Obviously, Evans now has a fair say in how his team is run. He was upset to lose Horner, but the management of the renamed formation Silence-Lotto did adhere to his wishes by recruiting an extremely valuable rider to replace the American. “Yaroslav Popovych was the first guy I asked for,” said Cadel during the transfer season at the end of last year.
The Ukrainian won the youth classification in his Tour debut in 2005 while racing alongside Lance Armstrong as part of the Bruyneel-managed Discovery team. He won a stage the following year and, in 2007, assisted Contador in the critical mountain stages. “Like in anything, there’s politics involved,” said Evans about the team selection. “Normally when you get the results they listen a bit more.”
So how does he think it’s going to work out with the roster change? “It’s a bit early to talk about that,” he explained in May. “I haven’t seen a lot of them. ‘Poppo’ was racing in Catalunya while I was doing training camps and most of the guys that are going to be in my team for the Tour were there as well.
“Robbie was at the Giro and he didn’t get the results that he got in the last two years there so that’s a tricky situation.
“I think people get the idea that the Tour is the sole focus but we’re actually obligated to do about 150 other days of racing throughout the year so, unfortunately, this sometimes gets in the way of what everyone else is focused on.”
The Tour de France has set the standard for bike races since its inception in 1903. Again, politics have come into the equation and the organisers have isolated themselves from the international governing body, the UCI. Even with all the manoeuvring behind the scenes, the vast majority of fans still relate more to the Tour than any other cycling event.
Evans is the winner of last year’s ProTour, a season-long competition that comprised a series of one-day and stage races, all contested in Europe. Consistency earned him that prize: seventh in Paris-Nice in March, second in the Dauphiné in June, second at the Tour in July, fourth in the Vuelta a España in September, sixth in Giro di Lombardia in October… These were the races in which he earned his points, but he also won the Good Luck Beijing time trial event a fortnight after the Tour and finished fifth in the world championship.
Although he had other things he wanted to do, Cadel raced the test event for the Olympics in China last August because he wanted to ensure he would have a place on what promises to be a strong Australian team. That’s likely to be the case but before Beijing he’s got a rendezvous in Brest. Three weeks after that he’ll shift his focus from the maillot jaune to a gold medal.
There are two main priorities for Cadel this year but are the Olympics more of an afterthought or is it a big deal?
“At this point yes, the Games take second priority,” said Evans. He doesn’t mean to dismiss the significance of his goals after July but he’s concentrating on things in a chronological order. “Pre-Tour and post-Tour are two completely different periods for me. I’ve already got one big objective for the year and that’s to win the Tour. Let’s see how that goes and then think about the next one after that.”
No matter what comes next, Cadel is now in the situation where he is given the chance to air his views. He received plenty of coverage in the Australian media for wearing an undershirt with a political slogan on it during Liège-Bastogne-Liège, even though his result barely rated a mention. Just days before the race affectionately known as La Doyenne, he was second in Flèche Wallonne. It was the best result for an Australian and he backed up with seventh in Liège.
Did people care? Probably. Did they get to read about it in the local media. No. It’s a shame, but Evans isn’t complaining. He lives his life, rides his bike and takes an interest in a range of matters not relating to his job. One issue he wants to promote is road safety. There’s a prevailing feeling of us-against-them with regard to motorists and cyclists. It need not be that way. “I look at it obviously as a cyclist,” he said about sharing the road.
“I ride but I also drive on the road. I see people’s attitude in general – not just when they drive but in the modern world – definitely becoming more selfish and less respectful towards others. A recent incident in Sydney is a reflection of that.
“I hope that people would realise that we’re all living in this world together and we all have to respect each other in everything we do. That applies for whether you’re driving your car, or people who you work with or whoever.”
He has become an ambassador for cycling by default but he also has a love of motorsport. Is there a way of combining the two elements to somehow create greater awareness? “As an athlete, one privilege is that some people respect and listen to your opinions. Getting second in the Tour has helped that. And one of the things I’m trying to raise awareness about is road safety.” There are other issues, and they are based on the same theme. “Part of that is also realising how important it is to have due respect for other people in the world. We can all learn a lot from the Dalai Lama.”
While there are always plenty of distractions, Evans knows that he needs to block them out and get on with what he’s paid to do. The task at hand is winning the Tour de France and his training regimen is a comprehensive one that involves fine-tuning all the small things that can enhance his chances this July. When it comes to offering advice to others on how they could improve their cycling, he has a simple philosophy. “Go to bed early, like our mums and dads told us when we were little kids. That’s probably the important thing.”
When asked to get a bit more specific about the hours of work he puts in, he hesitates. It’s not just a case of riding his bike a lot. He has one of the most extreme positions of any rider on a time trial bike. Is he the most flexible bloke in the bunch? “Probably. People who know me may remember all those yoga exercises I do.
“No one understood why I spent so much time putting myself into those strange positions. Well, it’s to improve my form on the bike. There’s a method to my madness.
“As a Tour rider you have to concentrate on: one, being a very good time triallist; and two, being a very good climber. And that’s what you work on. That’s what I work on all year.”
What else does he concentrate on when he’s churning out the kilometres on his own, on the home trainer, or out motorpacing with the help of his wife Chiara as she rides her scooter around the countryside near their European base just north of the Italian border with Switzerland? “Even for someone like me, who has been riding at a high level for 13 years, there’s still things to work on, pedalling technique and so on. My pedal stroke’s actually changed a fair bit in the last four or five years.
“I pedal more efficiently. Where do I even start to explain the adaptation? It’s really, really subtle differences. I sit on the bike with a much flatter back now than I used to three or four years ago, for example. People probably don’t notice this unless they’re actually looking for it. They may be little things that go unnoticed to the untrained eye, but they take a lot of work to do and correct. When you’re looking for a one per cent difference, it’s little things like that you have to look for.”
When Armstrong emerged as a Tour winner, people talked about his style: how he pointed his toes to pedal and revved a higher cadence. Is this what Cadel’s talking about? “That’s something I actually do just naturally because of my physical attributes,” is his explanation.
“I can climb while pedalling at a high cadence and for a long period of time. Basically the faster you pedal, the more you point your toes; that’s normal, it’s something that happens as a consequence of training yourself to ride in the most effective manner.”
There will be thousands tuning in to SBS this July to see if he can improve on his result from last year. Even in the early hours of the morning when the race is broadcast in Australia, there will now be people looking at how his action has changed. He’s increased the Tour’s appeal down under but can he recommend one day in particular that people shouldn’t miss? “I don’t try to target a particular stage. I’m just trying to win the race and to do that I need to be consistent every day.
“I’m often asked why I don’t attack. People have to consider that, when you’re going in as a favourite of the Tour, everyone is watching you. I’d have to be able to drop absolutely everyone in the race to get away in an escape group or on a mountain and it’s easier said than done. Especially when there are five or six teams full of riders whose sole job is just to stay with you. You have to be pretty good to win the Tour regardless.”
Is there anything else to consider when trying to answer the question many are asking: can Cadel win? “To be honest, there’s been that much talk, I’m tired of discussing it. I’ve done all I can to be in the best condition, I’m going with the intention of improving on what I’ve done in the past and hopefully all the little things will fall into place.”
– Rob Arnold (email@example.com)