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By John Wilcockson
When Phil Anderson became the first rider from the Southern Hemisphere to wear the yellow jersey at the Tour de France back in 1981, the French called him “Le Kangourou” simply because he’s Australian. Almost three decades later, this Tour’s new maillot jaune, Cadel Evans, might well be named the “Boxing Kangaroo” after the courageous way he picked himself off the canvas Sunday and came back Monday to fend off his closest opponents and take the overall lead.
After taking the yellow at the Hautacam summit, Evans made reference to the “Boxing Kangaroo” flags being waved by Aussie supporters on the 14.4km hors-catégorie mountain climb. The yellow ’roo (with its red boxing gloves) has become a popular mascot reflecting the feisty Australian spirit. It was used by the country’s fighter pilots in World War II, by the winning Americas Cup yacht Australia II in 1983, by recently successful Olympic teams from down under — and now in the 2008 Tour de France.
The extensive road rash that Evans sustained in the crash that decked him on stage 9 was a major factor on Monday’s monumental stage through the Pyrenees. The Silence-Lotto team leader seemed to shrug off his injuries, trying not to let them affect his performance. But had Evans not crashed he would certainly have raced more aggressively than he did at Hautacam. It’s doubtful that a 100-percent Evans would have allowed dangerous rivals like Luxembourger Fränk Schleck of CSC, Spaniard Juan José Cobo of Saunier Duval-Scott, and Austrian Bernhard Kohl of Gerolsteiner to ride away from him like they did.
It was telling that a magnificent Christian Vande Velde of Garmin-Chipotle held himself back when Kohl went away on the early part of the Hautacam climb, expecting Evans and co-favorite Denis Menchov of Rabobank to respond to the threats posed by Kohl and Schleck. “It was Menchov and Cadel’s Tour to lose,” said Vande Velde, “and I’ve never been in a situation like that. So I let them do the work. I thought they would have worked together more at the beginning; they would have been much better off.”
It’s doubtful that Evans will be so magnanimous with the opposition when the Tour reaches the Alps next weekend. The new race leader has Tuesday’s first rest day to further help his recovery, and then four less-challenging stages across the South of France to control the race.
Evans admitted on Monday night that he doesn’t “have the strongest team in the race.” But he quickly added, “One thing our team is pretty good at is riding on the front.” His Silence-Lotto teammates will have to do a lot of that in the upcoming stages, but a yellow jersey tends to galvanize teams, and the five Belgians Mario Aerts, Christophe Brandt, Leif Hoste, Johan Van Summeren and Wim Vansevenant seem to be up to the challenge, as do their colleagues Dario Cioni of Italy and Yaroslav Popovych of Ukraine.
Also, Evans’s fellow Aussie Robbie McEwen could keep the Silence team’s morale high by winning one of the flatter stages. The prospect of mass sprint finishes on stages 12, 13 and 14 will be enhanced by the sprinters’ teams — notably Barloworld, Crédit Agricole. Milram and Quick Step — working toward that same end. And that will help Silence-Lotto share the workload.
Of course, there’s the chance that CSC-Saxo Bank will want to jump Fränk Schleck into the yellow jersey, but wily team manager Bjarne Riis would probably prefer, for now, leaving that heavy responsibility to Evans and his team. But with the top 10 on GC still covered by only two and a half minutes, there are many other scenarios that could evolve in this fascinating Tour.
I will assess the riders who pose the biggest threat to Evans in my next column. For now, I’ll do a quick run down on our pre-race favorites, five of whom eliminated themselves from podium consideration on Monday’s Hautacam stage. Quick Step’s Stijn Devolder, CSC’s Andy Schleck and Euskaltel-Euskadi’s Samuel Sanchez, who are all riding the Tour for the first time, proved that trying to be a contender as a Tour rookie is virtually impossible in modern cycling. Having experience of riding the Tour really does count.
As for the other two who faltered, Damiano Cunego of Lampre and Alejandro Valverde, are (like Devolder) winners of classics this year. Perhaps they should continue to focus on the one-day races — in which they are brilliant performers — rather than attempting to extend their repertoire. Cunego, of course, is a past winner of the Giro d’Italia (and he could win it again in his still young career), but his failure in the higher intensity of competition and media pressure here just confirm, “the Giro is not the Tour.”
These then are the relative positions of our top favorites going into the rest day:
OUR 11 FAVORITES (after 10 stages)
1. Cadel Evans (AUS), Silence-Lotto 1,738.5km in 42:29:09 (40.919 kph)
2. Frank Schleck (LUX), CSC at 0:01
3. Christian Vande Velde (USA), Garmin-Chipotle at 0:38
5. Denis Menchov (RUS), Rabobank at 0:57
6. Carlos Sastre (ESP), CSC at 1:28
7. Kim Kirchen (LUX), Team Columbia at 1:56
9. Riccardo Ricco (ITA), Saunier Duval at 2:29
13. Samuel Sanchez (ESP), Euskaltel-Euskadi at 4:26
14. Alejandro Valverde (ESP), Caisse d’Epargne at 4:41
16. Damiano Cunego (ITA), Lampre at 5:37
22. Andy Schleck (LUX), CSC at 8:34
28. Stijn Devolder (BEL), Quick Step at 13:36