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Beating Contador and Gilbert at Mûr-de-Bretagne are major victories
It wasn’t just a routine stage win for Cadel Evans atop the infamous climb at Mûr-de-Bretagne on Tuesday, even though this was the first time in seven starts at the Tour de France that the 34-year-old Australian has taken a road stage. No, this was a confirmation that not only has he timed his season’s training perfectly to be ready for July’s multiple challenges, but also that his BMC Racing team, often criticized in the past for not being of sufficient quality for a leading contender, is just as ready as Evans.
When I interviewed him in Switzerland two months ago for the Official Tour Guide that VeloNews publishes every year, Evans was fully complimentary of the BMC squad he joined last year. He said that he felt completely at ease with the teammates and back-up crew that have enabled him to tackle this 98th Tour in the best shape possible, both physically and mentally.
“There are never unrealistic expectation in this team,” he told me. “The mentality from (owners) Jim (Ochowicz) and Andy (Rihs) really trickle down to the whole team, and everyone’s in this because they love it; it’s an ambiance and mentality I really like.”
He then added, “I’m not a rider that needs pressure to get results,” clearly referring to the pressure he got from his previous employer, the Belgian team Predictor-Lotto (now Omega Pharma-Lotto). No doubt, his being able to beat Omega-Lotto’s two leaders, Philippe Gilbert (fifth on Tuesday’s stage) and Jurgen Van den Broeck (ninth), was a huge satisfaction.
But, typically, when Evans spoke right after he beat defending champion Alberto Contador, who was looking for revenge after his losses on the first two days, the BMC leader first said, “Big surprise, big surprise. I still cannot quite believe it myself.”
Then he went on, “My hero today is Marcus Burghardt. Someone ran into my rear derailleur, and (after a bike change) Burghardt brought me all the way through the peloton right to the front. I didn’t even know if I would see the front again.”
The derailleur-contact incident Evans spoke about happened just inside 40km to go where the peloton was picking up the pace to catch a five-man break that still had a 2:35 lead. This was vintage Brittany racing on rolling roads made wet by earlier rain, with water dripping off the oaks leaning from the fern-filled hedgerows.
Evans, who said the “gears were changing on their own,” drifted back to his team car, where the mechanic leant from the back window, spraying lube on the chain to try to stop the chain jumping. That seemed to solve the problem, but once he was back in the fast-moving peloton he spoke about it with team captain George Hincapie, riding his record 16th Tour.
“At the moment, my bike worked, but you have to have everything perfect for the finish so I took a moment and George, with his experience, told me, ‘Change bikes now!’”
By this point, inside 20km to go, the peloton’s speed was astronomical after U.S. time trial champ Dave Zabriskie took up the chase for his Garmin-Cervélo teammate Thor Hushovd, the race leader. It would be a monumental task for Evans to get back to the front of the line before the climbing toward the finish began at 6km to go.
When Zabriskie pulled to the side, after pulling for 16 minutes straight, six Omega-Lotto riders took over and then world champion Fabian Cancellara went to the front for Leopard-Trek’s two leaders Fränk and Andy Schleck. It was during this rapid pursuit — which closed the break down just inside 5km to go — that Burghardt was pulling Evans through the splitting peloton, working his way from group to group until delivering his leader to the head of affairs as they reached the streets of Mûr-de-Bretagne with 4km to go.
Evans said. “I didn’t think I would it would be possible for the final because the effort we made was a big deal to come back and pass 180 riders at those speeds on the narrow roads. But the team did a great job to tow me back to the front. And everyone saw George Hincapie there (on the front) with 3km to go.”
Hincapie took Evans to the front just as they hit the final 2km-long climb to the finish. “It was a very hard course today,” Evans said. “It was very hard in the end, when Contador started to attack; it was very hard to stay close to him.” Even so, when the grade eased from 10 percent to 5 percent with a kilometer left, Evans moved to the front, followed by Gilbert and Contador.
Virtual GC after stage 4
(Standings of the top 20 GC favorites)
1. Cadel Evans 13:58:26
2. Fränk Schleck at 0:03
3. Andreas Klöden at 0:09
4. Brad Wiggins s.t.
5. Andy Schleck at 0:11
6. Tony Martin at 0:12
7. Tejay Van Garderen at 0:12
8. Chris Horner at 0:17
9. Levi Leipheimer s.t.
10. Jani Brajkovic s.t.
11. Robert Gesink at 0:19
12. Alexander Vinokourov at 0:31
13. Jorgen Van den Broeck at 0:38
14. Ivan Basso 1:02
15. Nicolas Roche 1:11
16. Ryder Hesjedal at 1:21
17. Alberto Contador at 1:41
18. Christian Vande Velde at 1:56
19. Roman Kreuziger at 2:28
20. Samuel Sanchez at 2:35
But none of them wanted to commit too soon on an exposed climb with gusting cross and head winds. It was the inexperienced Colombian Rigoberto Uran of Sky who next accelerated, followed by Astana’s Alexander Vinokourov. When Van den Broeck countered, Evans followed, with Gilbert, Contador and Vinokourov on his wheel.
Contador, his face grimed from the messy day, then bolted from the 10-strong group that had dropped the rest, and Evans took his wheel before going for the win himself. “I was committed but I didn’t want to launch too hard,” Evans said, “because I knew the others could have come ’round me. I saw Contador closing in on me but I just had to hold him off. It came down to the throw to the line.”
Evans then added, “I can’t believe that I out-sprinted Philippe Gilbert into a head wind like that.” He then continued, “It was nice to take a little time on the others (six seconds on Brad Wiggins and Ivan Basso, eight seconds on Andy Schleck, Levi Leipheimer and Chris Horner), but Contador is very strong.
“Contador is never a guy you underestimate. They can talk about Contador and Schleck all they want. We have our plan and we’ll stick to that. I am still in second place (behind a resilient Hushovd), but the impressions are good right now. We had good preparation for the Tour this year and the team is very motivated to help me, so everything is going very good right now.
“The GC will be done in the last 10 days, but anywhere we can get time is always a bonus — for the confidence and for the team. It’s a good indication for myself and my competition, but the GC is always our main goal here.”
Knowing that crashes have hampered his chances in past Tours, the man who has twice placed second at the Tour concluded, “My main thing for this year’s Tour de France is to not have bad luck. We come here motivated, well planned, and we’ve done a lot of work to prepare for this race. Our homework’s starting to pay off.”