Analysis: Evans rides into sunset as Australia’s greatest cyclist ever

Andrew Hood takes a deeper look into Cadel Evans' career, highlighted by an historic victory at the 2011 Tour de France

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ADELAIDE, Australia (VN) — Tuesday’s start of the Santos Tour Down Under marks the end of one of cycling’s most remarkable and unlikely careers in the peloton’s history.

Cadel Evans, one of the most tenacious, dogged, and perhaps misunderstood riders in the bunch, will embark on his final stage race of a career marked by historical highs and gut-wrenching lows.

A mountain biker who became Australia’s first Tour de France winner, the 37-year-old will put an end to his dramatic and sometimes bumpy career in front of home crowds.

“I just want to enjoy racing, being in the peloton with these guys, and pinning a number on my jersey for the last time,” Evans said about this week. “It’s the last time I will be racing in a stage race, in a WorldTour event, so I want to enjoy the moment.”

For Australia, Evans stands head and shoulders above every other cyclist that came before him. The continent has produced its fair share of great cyclists over the decades, but no one comes close to his achievements and consistency across two decades of racing on dirt and pavement. Others have reached important milestones, such as Stuart O’Grady winning Paris-Roubaix or Phil Anderson winning Tour de France stages, but no Australian cyclist has been as good and as consistent as long as Evans.

“He’s our greatest ever cyclist, without a doubt,” said Rupert Guinness, an Australian cycling journalist who’s covered Evans’ career. “He’s our greatest sportsman over the past decade. There is no one who’s come close to Cadel in any sport.”

Evans’ achievements indeed put him into elite company. After winning two mountain bike overall World Cup titles, he transitioned to the road in 2002 and quickly became a stage-race and grand-tour contender. His diesel-like engine and solid all-round skills saw him knocking on the door to become Australia’s first grand tour winner.

After a string of painstakingly close calls, including second places in the 2007 and 2008 Tours, and third in 2009 Vuelta a España, Evans enjoyed a breakthrough, winning the world title in Mendrisio in 2009, and the yellow jersey in 2011. He never won a lot, but his wins were important, historic, and quality.

Despite his stunning success, Evans remained a unique presence on and off the bike. Unassuming and almost solitary, he never felt comfortable under the glare of the media, and often appeared awkward and uncomfortable with the attention that came with being Australia’s most successful cyclist. His 2009 Tour saw some of his personality quirks burst into the public limelight, including a few incidents that went viral on YouTube.

Yet it was his unassuming style and workingman’s ethic that eventually won him over legions of fans in Australia. When he won the 2011 Tour, thousands turned out to welcome home their pedaling hero.

“What is most impressive about Cadel is that he is an authentic person. He is not one of these guys in sunglasses, living on a castle on the hill,” said BMC’s Georges Leuchinger, his longtime press officer. “He is an every-day person, just like you or me, but someone who is extraordinary racing his bicycle.”

But those quirks manifested themselves in interesting ways. As much as he seemed to disavow the media spotlight, he was one of the few Olympic athletes who took a brave stand during the 2008 Beijing Games to protest conditions in Tibet. The Chinese government and sports federations pressured athletes to avoid sensitive political issues, but Evans bravely stood up for the Tibetans, once wearing a “Free Tibet” T-shirt under his racing jersey.

“Trying to bring awareness of the Tibet movement is something someone in my position can do,” Evans said in an interview. “I just feel really sorry for them. They don’t harm anyone and they are getting their culture taken away from them. I don’t want to see a repeat of what happened to Aboriginal culture [in Australia] happen to another culture.”

Though his final race will be February 1 at the Great Ocean road race in Geelong, this week’s Santos Tour Down Under will serve as a weeklong goodbye to Australia’s greatest cyclist. The accolades won’t be short in coming.

“It will be a big change for sport in Australia. Cadel Evans has created milestones, with the Tour de France win, and the world championships. He’s been on and off the bike an example for young riders,” said race director Mike Turtur. “He has a great history with the race, and it’s been a great experience to have him here. The public loves his presence. He will be missed, but he will get a great sendoff from the Tour Down Under.”

In general, Evans clearly preferred to let his legs do the talking. And talk they did, delivering Australia two of cycling’s most prized achievements: the rainbow jersey and the yellow jersey. This week will be his big sendoff.

In perhaps a testament to his legacy, and as a sign of respect to his fans and the Tour Down Under organization, Evans shows up this week ready to race to win. He could have easily been hitting the beers and barbecues over the past few months, but he’s trim, fit, and motivated to try to win.

“Like most races I do, I race to win, to get a good result, and this one is no different. The fact that I am racing in front of home crowd, I have to appreciate the joy of racing,” Evans said. “I came here to focus to perform, but I also want to enjoy the race, to be in the peloton, to race with colleagues, which will the last time in a stage race, and the last time in a WorldTour race.”

Australia will be hard-pressed in trying to replace him.

Cadel Evans’ rise to prominence passed through several decisive moments, from mountain biking to Tour de France winner. It was never easy, and perhaps Evans endured more bumps and hurdles than most, but his perseverance and determination was ultimately rewarded. Here are the key moments of Evans’ 14-year road career:

2002 Giro d’Italia: First hint

Just as he did as a skinny teenager on the mountain bike circuit in the 1990s, Evans quickly made an impression when he turned his focus to the road. In 2001, he won the Tour of Austria racing part-time with Saeco. The following year, he started the Giro without any expectations to perform in what would be his first of 17 career grand tours. When Mapei team captain Stefano Garzelli was kicked out for a doping offense, Evans found himself in the pink jersey going into the third week. Though he was eventually swamped by race winner Paolo Savoldelli and settled for 14th overall, the experience proved pivotal. After snagging pink in stage 16, an Italian journalist asked Evans, “Do you know who Fausto Coppi is?” Evans giggled his trademark laugh, and admitted he was new to the sport and didn’t know all of cycling’s rich history at that point, something the proud Italians found offensive. Some 24 hours later, Evans sat at the top of the Folgaria summit after ceding pink in stage 17, realizing the future looked bright. “Maybe I can be pretty good at these stage races,” Evans said at the time.

2010 Fleche Wallonne: Mastering his craft

Evans’ transition from mountain bike to road racing was never easy. Some questioned his tactical prowess, especially after a string of heart-wrenching close calls, including narrow losses in the 2007 and 2008 Tours. There was no questioning Evans’ engine, but he seemed to be lacking a certain touch of tactical acumen. All that changed in 2010. Riding proud in the rainbow jersey as world champion, Evans took a sublime victory at Flèche Wallonne in what would be his most important one-day victory of his career. There is a sweet spot on the Mur de Huy to place a well-timed attack, and Evans nailed it spot-on to knock back Spanish archrivals Joaquim Rodríguez and Alberto Contador. Evans was now a complete rider.

2009 Vuelta a Espana: Bitter tears

Eight months earlier, Evans started that year’s Vuelta as one of the top favorites, but once again victory seemed to be slipping through his hands. One decisive moment came on an intense summit finale at Sierra Nevada in stage 13. Evans punctured just over the top of the Cat. 1 Alto de Monachil, and the Spanish mountain goats quickly gassed it to try to distance the dangerous Evans. With the team cars far back on the narrow mountain road, Evans struggled with a botched wheel change from neutral support. Once across the finish line, his GC chances were all but dashed and years of frustration and angst came pouring out of Evans. He vented against perceived wrongs leveled against him by the peloton, and he broke down in tears as he cursed what seemed to be another case of bad luck. He later admitted it was one of the few times in his life that he ever cried. Yet that moment of frustration and anger seemed to be a turning point. With steely resolve, he would wreak his revenge at the Mendrisio world championships weeks later.

2009 Mendrisio world championships: Emphatic victory

Perhaps Evans’ signature victory, he defied the pundits, who had all but written him off, with a powerful, well-timed move over the final climb on a hilly climber’s course on the hills of Ticino. Evans knew the climb well, as he lives just down the road in nearby Stabio. Nurtured by longtime trainer and coach Aldo Sassi, Evans peaked at the right moment and attacked with precision, throwing it in the big ring to drop Rodríguez and win alone across the line to become Australia’s first world champion. Evans later said he’s never been able to replicate the power he put down on the closing kilometers, a testament to his form on the day.

2011 Tour de France: History is made

Going into the final decisive stages of the 2011 Tour, it looked like Evans was going to blow it again. Andy Schleck was nipping at his heels and the skinny Luxembourger uncorked a lethal attack in stage 18, putting Evans under tremendous pressure. With the peloton blown to bits, Evans single-handedly led the chase up the hors-categorie summit of the Col du Galibier in a tremendous demonstration of raw power and sheer guts. No one pulled through to help the chase. It was Evans versus the world, and he held steady. Schleck took more than two minutes on Evans and would snag the yellow jersey the next day at l’Alpe d’Huez, but Evans saved, and ultimately put himself into position to win the Tour on that decisive stage. For once, the script went according to plan, and Evans took back the time he needed in the final time trial at Grenoble to carry yellow into Paris. History was made; Evans became Australia’s first yellow jersey winner. Even though he only won once, the hard-fought nature of the victory was a testament to all of his battles over the years. For once, luck aligned with his natural power, and Evans carved his name into history.

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