At a press conference in Spain on 26 September 2014, Cadel Evans announced that he would stop racing next February. His final competition as a pro cyclist will be one named in his honour: the ‘Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race’. It will bring an end to an epic career of a pioneering Australian rider. Friday 27 September 2014 marks the five year anniversary of a race in Switzerland that changed Evans: he became a world champion. He found satisfaction. He rode to the finish line in Mendrisio, Switzerland on his own. The winning move came over climbs of the circuit race and despite it being clear that he would be crowned champion, he insisted with his effort all the way to the end – a stage race specialist, a true “GC guy”, winning the first one-day race of his career – only offering a few blown kisses to the crowd and a meek one-handed salute. Victory! At last. Relief. Soon he’s going to stop pedalling. Retirement beckons but he will always be a cyclist, just not a professional racer after 1 February 2015.
As we approach that anniversary and realise that the end of his career is near, it’s time for a flashback to that day in Mendrisio. Here is the story as told in an exclusive interview with RIDE Cycling Review two days after his conquest in Switzerland…
– By Rob Arnold
There was fury in each pedal stroke. I! Am! Going! To! Win! This! Race! You can repeat it with a grunt of breath at the end of each word and think: that’s it, he tamed it with aggression. Finally, some observers suggested, he had attacked. And that’s when he won.
No, he unleashed his power and did what many believed he could: become the best bike rider in the world. It was the confirmation of a champion.
Now he could purge himself of what had burdened him. Success is what he always strived for but it had often eluded him because of reasons beyond his control. This time, however, victory was his and it came in the form of a world championship title near the Australian’s Swiss base. These were Cadel’s worlds to win. He had form and motivation, support and knowledge that an ambition could be achieved.
“I am going to win this race.” How else could he have found the power to push on the pedals faster than you could say the words? There had been other aims for the season, but the road race in Mendrisio was identified long ago as something he believed he could succeed in.
He had never been bold enough to suggest this in the lead-up to the race in Switzerland at the end of the season, but his body language at last revealed what everyone knew he wanted to express: these are my worlds, and this is my time…
Before 27 September 2009 there was Cadel – a bike rider in his prime, a man capable of great things, a solid prospect, a regular contributor to the results sheet, a guy with impressive ability who had become an integral character of a sport going through significant change. An honest force who often came close to victory but, for one reason or another, was never quite able to snare the big one. We all know about the closest calls, because finishing second in the Tour de France is not something that escapes the headlines. He kept Aussies awake longer than most would have liked during the cold month of July as he plied his trade on the roads of Europe, doing his ‘day job’.
He’s a GC rider. That’s what he calls himself. He wants to be on top of the general classification. And that’s what his team pays him to do. Then came the call-up for national duties.
In the world championship he wore his country’s colours and while it was his audacious attack in the closing kilometres that earned him the right to salute – one that was later politely declined in favour of a gentle wave of the hand and a few well-aimed kisses – it was a team effort. Cadel’s worlds had been promised for so long that when the moment was realised, he did not gush. He raced to the line, a gesture of never surrender. ‘All the way’ is his approach; time is of the essence. But, for once, it wasn’t about time.
This was the maiden one-day race victory for the GC Guy.
“I didn’t know if I had a lead of five seconds or 50,” he said two days later, with time to reflect and, for once, watch the replays. This is not normally his habit. He generally doesn’t like to watch footage of himself compete, unless it’s a time trial and he can observe his position and consider improvements.
He would win by 27 seconds. Silver and bronze – Alexandr Kolobnev and Joaquin Rodriquez – had lost their race seven kilometres earlier. On the approach to the Novazzano climb, the final one of the 262.2km race, there were three in the lead. There was a look to the left by the Russian, a shoulder shrug from the Spaniard. And then the Australian pounced, opening up a margin that would eventually be sufficient should he opt for an animated gesture as he crossed the line.
He didn’t throw his arms aloft. He didn’t zip up his jersey. He eventually stopped pedalling but didn’t take a hand off his handlebars. There was no gesture to fire a pistol or do something else he could later trademark. Why expect the norm from a man who was doing something out of the ordinary? He laughs when reminded that he raced to the line like time mattered. It was something new for him. “Having been so close before, even looking like the win was in the bag, I refused to celebrate too soon. I’ve lost world titles because of a puncture or a crash near the finish before. In my experience, it’s never over until you cross the finish line so I was taking no chance.”
He has been in focus before. Since his teenage years Cadel had been a rider destined to win a world championship. But it didn’t happen until he was 32, when half a lifetime of toil was rewarded in Mendrisio.
There’s a lot more to winning a bike race than simply being the fastest rider in the field. Before 27 September there were numerous articles that examined the nature of the world championship road race and the conclusion was that this one-day contest near the end of the season was a lottery. Escapes could be made and allegiances formed – national pride or professional commitments could, as they have in the past, factor into the outcome. The course changes every year. One year it might suit a sprint, the next it could be considered a climbers’ course, and this affects the result. On the menu in 2009 was a circuit that suited the characteristics of several riders but one knew it intimately.
Cadel was a local and also one of the favourites in the part of Switzerland he has adopted as his home away from home. He married a girl who grew up just south of the Italian border and the couple eventually settled in Stabio in the Ticino canton. Of course, Chiara Passerini was there that day. So were many others who believed that this rider from Australia could finally prove that he was the best.
“I had no knowledge of cycling as a sport,” said Chiara of her life before being introduced to her future husband. “My dad knew a little but nobody in my family knew who Cadel was. ‘Oh, he’s mountain biker.’ But that’s all I knew.”
He has won the MTB World Cup (twice) and the ProTour (in a year when the winner was determined by performance in all the major races including each of the Grand Tours – Giro, Tour and Vuelta). He was the first Australian to lead the three-week Italian race and the first from his country to finish on the podium of the GC rankings at the Tour (which he did twice, the first time with the second-smallest margin in the event’s long history). Cadel has won a time trial stage of the Tour (retrospectively) and, in the same year, was voted the most popular athlete in Australia in a poll conducted by a leading Australian media organisation. He has taken the sport of cycling to a new level in the land where he was born and yet it was in his adopted country that he would pull off the biggest victory of a career that is far from over.
Despite his achievements, Cadel had also fallen short of some of his aspirations. But this didn’t mean he had surrendered hope; there was still unfinished business to attend to. You don’t walk away from something just because of a setback, or even a sequence of them. Had he done that he would have quit cycling a long time ago.
At the start of his riding days, he happened to be good at it. Early in his biography Close To Flying – which was being finalised in the week the world championships were held – Cadel explains the satisfaction generated by the sensation of a perfect day on the bike. He talks of freedom and the pleasures of cycling, how a trail could seem like nature’s roller coaster.
This is what got Cadel hooked. Ever since he’s been working on becoming the best bike rider in the world. In the process of achieving this, he’s experienced numerous highs and lows. It is a ride that has taken him up mountains and through valleys, the peaks and troughs of life on the bike. There were moments to celebrate and close calls to frustrate, all of which contributed to a great sense of satisfaction when he did finally achieve what he always believed possible.
When he eventually reached that finish line in first place, Cadel displayed humility. His simple gestures were the antithesis of what is expected of a world championship winner.
“I had so much personal satisfaction from that result that I didn’t need to be exalted,” he said of his subtle salute.
“It’s funny to look back on the 2009 season. I had so many obstacles to overcome that people aren’t aware of – things that I can’t really talk about because of professional reasons. These setbacks kept coming, one after another after another. It felt like, for as many weeks as there are in a year, I had setbacks.”