Cadel Evans Profile – From 2009 Tour Guide

This is a feature published in June 2009 in the Australian Edition of the Official Tour de France Guide.

Last year he was number one. In stage nine he crashed. By the end of stage 10 he was in the lead. Cadel Evans has been working on a dream that began when he first realised that riding a bike for a job was possible. The story continues…

By Rob Arnold

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All the circumstances were right for Cadel Evans when he arrived at the start of the 2008 Tour de France in Brest. It was a dream scenario. At 31, his time had come. In the absence of the defending champion, he would wear the number-one dossard for his fourth start in the race. This was appropriate for the runner-up from the previous year as the consensus was that he held the title of favourite for the event.

This was to be the defining moment, the culmination of 15 years of hard work. It was no longer about what the Australian may one day do; now was the time to do it. Ahead lay a course suited to his characteristics. Behind him was a near miss against a rival who would not be part of the 95th Tour. It was the last part of a natural progression that grew from one simple fact: Cadel could ride a bike well.

“In 1991, I got my first mountain bike. I started racing the next year. It was a life change.”

Succinct. That’s Cadel. But he does enjoy expanding on the topics close to his heart and cycling, although it’s his job, still entertains him. He sees it from an entirely different angle than the rest of us though. What we have witnessed on television, especially in recent years, isn’t how he remembers it. Rarely has he viewed footage of himself racing. He doesn’t like to see it again; it’s in his memory and he can watch it another day.

He has always been willing to explain his story. As demand has increased, he has grown more sparse with his answers but he notes how the media has played a role in his development.

“In 1992, I started reading cycling magazines and realised it was possible to actually make a job out of riding a bike, and that was always what I wanted to do. ‘What, you can be a professional at this!? Well, whatever it’s going to take – I don’t care about the sacrifices – I’m going to do it.’

“That’s when all else took a back seat. School was part of the routine but the first priority was riding.”

Evans followed a path that very few can take: from junior level racing through the ranks, often in first place, onward to Olympic representation (still as a teenager) and ultimately to the top of his discipline. With two World Cup series victories, the most consistent MTB rider in 1998 and 1999 had one last major off-road rendezvous before his focus began to change.

The Sydney Olympics came and went. This was his first taste of real tension. Of course, he’d experienced it before but as favourite for the MTB gold medal there were overwhelming moments. Later he would reflect on his seventh place and how it frustrated him, but he soon realised it was time to move on.

“I don’t look back at my life and have regrets about how things worked out in my upbringing,” said the son of Helen Cocks and Paul Evans. He was a boy who got his first bikes from his father but would be raised by his mother after the two separated before Cadel was six. “There may have been a few times when I wondered, ‘How come my father wasn’t a rider… how come I didn’t have a brother to train with..?’

“But I didn’t have that,” he said during a discussion about the Schleck brothers. “And I learned to do it on my own and, from that, you learn to do it better.”

Even those close to him, like current directeur sportif – and good friend – Hendrik Redant, cite the years as a mountain biker as a cause for some of his solitary ways. “That’s not a team sport,” said the Belgian last November while reflecting on the mannerisms of a rider he’s come to admire, even if there have been instances of frustration during their time together at Silence-Lotto. “He is used to doing things his way but I can see him adapting to a team sport like road cycling.”

Cadel admits his education suffered because of cycling but he’s been paid to ride since he was 17; the job found him and he happened to love it. “I had to learn how to eat as a rider, how to live as one, how to do things in my life – and I’m still refining them – to be more efficient,” he said of those early days.

“Even if I look at an arbitrary week or month, there are many instances when I think that I wasted a lot of time refining some of the processes others had peers to teach them; I had to learn on my own. Perhaps my career would have been fast-tracked had it been different, but that’s irrelevant.

“I worked at it and, over the years, my cycling improved. It’s what happens to anyone when they’re passionate about what they do. You ride your bike and enjoy it. Ride more, get better at it. Ride more, perfect your method… It’s a natural progression when you’re having fun.”

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In Brest at the start of July 2008, Evans was at the centre of the cycling universe. He was content, fit and ready; keen for the race to begin. Hypothesizing on possible outcomes irritates him. There is only one way to know what will happen in a bike race: start it, experience it, watch what unfolds and then you have the answer. The end result tells the story. “I don’t have a crystal ball.” That was a favourite line during the lead-up.

After the race had begun, another one-liner emerged. It had to satisfy the sound-grab hunters for a week: “So far, so good.”

That was his chorus as the Tour raced east from France’s extreme west. In cold, windy and sometimes wet conditions, the peloton aimed towards the Pyrenees. With the number one stuck on his back, there was pressure, expectation and attention. And a coil in the calm unit that was presented at the Grand Départ started to wind up. When pushed for commentary, however, he maintained his cool and regularly repeated his mantra to the media. “So far, so good.”

A year earlier he had been part of a squad that still divided its forces. Silence-Lotto was one part McEwen, one part Evans. In London, at the start of the 2007 Tour, the two Australians were presented as the protected riders in the Belgian team. It made sense. Robbie McEwen was a winning machine, a rider who acted as insurance for the sponsor. If wins were on the wane, line Robbie up and watch him go. In the shadows until the dying metres, he would cross the line first.

Collective sighs from directeurs sportif, management and sponsors alike prevailed during the years McEwen was at the myriad incarnations of the …-Lotto team. When all looked dire the sprinter would deliver a reason to celebrate. But in 2007, a year when another option was being explored, the unthinkable happened: Robbie abandoned. Yes, of course, he won a stage. He did that in emphatic style in Canterbury, winning the race from the British capital. Afterwards the Tour entourage was ferried back to the Continent from a nearby port.

The focus would switch from the green to the yellow jersey in a serendipitous sequence. The day Robbie finally surrendered – the only time the Queenslander quit the Tour – also happened to be the day Cadel was first told he had the yellow jersey. It would prove to be an administrative error but at the ski station of Tignes where the peloton had arrived after an epic stage, Evans received news that caused a flutter.

His normally stoic demeanour suffered a surge of adrenaline when it was whispered, “You’re in the yellow jersey.” A moment to catch his breath was all it took before a subsequent statement was issued: “Oh, sorry. It’s a mistake with the timing. You’re actually sixth. Pardon. Désolé.”

The winner in Tigne, Michael Rasmussen, had also taken the overall lead. He was destined to be the winner in Paris too. But he lied. The race would progress around France, from north to south, the Alps to the Pyrenees. Evans went on to win a stage but he wouldn’t realise it on the day. In Albi, in a time trial on a day of changing conditions – drenching wet at the start, sunshine by late afternoon – he was the fastest clean rider in the Tour.

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In the mountains a liar triumphed and while racing the clock a cheat trumped Evans. But both Rasmussen and Alexandre Vinokourov would go on to lose a lot more than they gained from their deceptions. Although he’d inadvertently been told he would take the yellow jersey and had won a stage, Evans was not presented on the podium at the 2007 Tour de France until he stepped up to the runner-up’s rung in Paris.

Public Enemy can be paraphrased to sum up how Evans found out he won his TT stage: ‘He got a letter from the governing body the other day… opened it up and read it. Said they were suckers.’ In Vino no veritas. The Kazakh warrior had not achieved his conquest in truth. ‘Vino’ had propelled himself to a time trial victory with the assistance of someone else’s blood. And he would be exposed. Evans, the runner-up in Albi, would later be informed that he was actually meant to stand on the dais after the 13th stage. Cadel wasn’t 1’14” slower than the man who did, he was actually the winner.

But no time bonus applied. Imagine if this had been the case, as it was for non-time trial stages in 2007. The winner would have earned 20 more seconds, that’s how it was for all but the prologue, 13th and 19th stages of the 94th Tour. There’s the opportunity here to dream up hypotheticals: if time trials had also earned bonuses, Evans would have (retrospectively) gained 20 seconds in Albi and 12 seconds for his second place on the penultimate day of that year’s race. It would have translated to a gain of 32 seconds. But it didn’t happen and it doesn’t change anything. He lost the Tour by 23 seconds. And that’s how it will always be.

“Nothing is sure in life,” Evans said when reminded of the circumstances he faced at the start of the 2008 Tour de France. Ideally placed to win the race, he would falter. The mantra repetition would stop after he crashed in a non-descript town in stage nine, sustaining injuries that would limit his capacity for over half of the race. A stupid incident caused by Gorka Verdugo – a Basque name with a literal translation of ‘Gorka, the executioner’ – ended his four-word rap.

Until then, it was so good. He’d stayed out of trouble. Escaping injury and incident, he was poised to strike in the Pyrenees but instead he arrived in Bagnère-de-Bigorre battered and bruised. His jersey smeared in blood, a shattered helmet was handed to a journalist with three words – “Here’s your interview” – before the rider departed to tend to his wounds.

So ended stage nine. A day later the conclusion evoked an entirely different set of emotions. Instead of racing through a valley in a car driven by his faithful bodyguard Serge Borlée, in search of a hospital, Evans was transported down from the lofty heights of Hautacam in a helicopter. One day he was being stopped by gendarmes because of a speeding violation by Borlée – and subsequently offered official assistance by the French police to ensure prompt arrival at a medical clinic – the next he was being ushered to the podium protocol.

In Bagnères-de-Bigorre he was sore. At Hautacam he was in the maillot jaune. A helicopter delivered him to Pau in a yellow glow that would last for at least the rest day. His advantage over the rider in second place, Fränk Schleck, was just one lousy second but Evans had officially escaped the ‘Poulidor’ label.

Other riders have come close to winning the Tour before. But only one has reached Paris – at the end of this torturous three-week affair – with a deficit less than what Evans, the runner-up in 2007, had to the winner. “I know where I lost it,” he declared before recounting a moment of hesitation by allies of Vinokourov and Contador during a chase to Loudenvielle in stage 15. A year later the downfall came on the road between Bourg d’Oisans and L’Alpe d’Huez.

The first time the tension caused by the 23 seconds lost during the course of the 3,570km race in 2007 abated was when Cadel truly emerged as a leader. At Hautacam, despite the pain that prompted him to lash out at a few inconsiderate people who insisted on slapping him on the shoulder he’d injured only a day earlier, he eclipsed M. Raymond Poulidor… at least in one respect. The Frenchman is the rider whose name is synonymous with the notion of perennial runner-up. In French culture at least. Poulidor finished second in the Tour three times (and third on five occasions). Throughout his distinguished career, one that stands him in good stead years after his racing days as an ambassador for the sport, Poulidor never wore the yellow jersey.

Cadel achieved what Raymond could not: he led the Tour. So far, he could have said, so good. But there were still 10 stages to go. By the time the opportunity had arrived for him to don the jersey of the race leader, he was sore, distracted and minor details such as the official podium protocol were not foremost in his mind. “Oops, I forgot to shake hands with all the VIPs,” he wrote in an SMS.

He would get other chances to greet race director Christian Prudhomme, five-time winner Bernard Hinault and the other dignitaries who wait in the wings – including Poulidor himself who is now on Tour as a representative of LCL, the yellow jersey sponsor – in the giant inflatable structure that emerges on a daily basis at the site of stage finishes.

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Cadel’s first day in the yellow jersey was a repos in Pau. A press conference and some motorpacing were on the menu before the race recommenced. In Foix, after an escape group contested the race for stage honours, he remembered the VIPs. In Narbonne, after stage 12, he was back on the podium to receive another yellow jersey although this time the centre of attention at the end of racing was the race director, Christian Prudhomme. He had to explain the exclusion of the Saunier Duval team: CERA was the reason and Riccardo Riccò was the culprit… the first and, alas, not the last to fail a new test devised by the AFDL for a new generation of EPO.

Others resorted to artificial means to enhance their chance of victory, but Evans remains a pragmatist. He’s lost to cheats and has been beaten by stronger teams. His dream remains: he wants to win the biggest bike race of them all. He’s been close. He’s the only man to have twice held the title of runner-up in the Tour with a deficit to the winner of less than a minute.

When he was 17, he finished fifth in a round of the MTB World Cup held in tropical rainforest near Cairns. Ever since Cadel has been known as ‘the rider who could one day win the Tour de France’. When reminded of this, his thoughts return to the events of July 2008. “And then,” he recalls about the reactions he’s heard numerous times since his loss to Carlos Sastre, “it was, ‘Why didn’t you win!’”

How does he handle this perception? “Going into the Tour I always try to be a little bit more prudent, especially when it’s a race like that, because everyone is watching and everyone has an opinion and everyone has questions.”

This year he’s comfortable knowing the consensus is that another rider will hold the title of favourite. At the start in Monaco there will be four men who have previously won the title – one of whom has done so seven times in succession and, despite a hiatus from racing for three seasons, it’s impossible to ignore the presence of Armstrong. Evans reiterates his response to queries about the route or his rivals. “I’ll do my best,” he insists. “The course is designed by the organisers and there’ll always be other riders to beat.”

But the question as he approaches the start of his fifth Tour remains the same as a year earlier. Is he going to win? “I don’t know. I’m going to try but I’m not sure.” That’s the beauty of cycling, nothing is certain. Favourites can falter, crashes can occur, teams can collude, hesitation can cost, and numerous variables can have an influence on the outcome.

“The last two years I came close but a few things went wrong and I didn’t win it. In 2008 I was the favourite because I was the highest ranked rider from the year before who was at the start. I understand that this brings with it added pressure but I was ready –  I was fit, healthy, had good support – and had a few things not gone wrong, it could have all been different.”

For a lot of other riders in the Tour, the dream of wearing the yellow jersey at the conclusion will remain just that. They don’t possess the powers that men like Lance, Oscar, Alberto, Carlos or, dare we say it, Cadel do. So is the Australian comfortable with the belief that one day he can win the Tour? “Oh, absolutely. It’s totally realistic and totally doable. I’ll keep working at it like that.”

– Rob Arnold (rob@ridemedia.com.au)

(Feature as PDF)


Author: design@ride

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