I didn’t really have many words last night … just a feeling.
In 2007, Cadel Evans went into the starting house within reach of Alberto Contador. I had watched the Spanish man dance on the pedals in the mountains, & thought, ‘now this is not merely sport, but art’. I didn’t know how he would time trial. I knew Cadel could time trial, and he did. He rode the race of his life and at every checkpoint, he took time from Contador. It wasn’t enough. ‘Bertie’ showed he could do it to0. He won the Tour by 23 seconds.
In 2008, the man wearing the yellow jersey, Carlos Sastre, having destroyed his follow ‘heads of state’ on the hairpin bends of the Alpe d’Huez, went into the starting house holding a 1’34″ lead on third-placed Cadel. I think everyone expected him expected to fade. He didn’t. More importantly, Cadel didn’t time trial as well as everyone thought he would. Sastre won the 2008 Tour de France by 58″.
Thge 2009 Tour was awful. He finised 45′ behind Contador. From two 2nd places to 30th. Clearly the relationship between Cadel & Silence-Lotto was over, despite the addition of Phillipe Gilbert (PhilGil) to the team.
Then that day at Mendrisio … world champion. The announcement that Cadel was looking for new challenges & would leave Lotto. Signing with BMC Racing Team. Winning Fleche Wallone and the holding the maglia rosa at the Giro. He didn’t win, but as he and Alexandre ‘Vino’ Vinokourov slugged out stage 7 on the strada bianche like a muddied Frasier / Ali, there was just this feeling that this year would be the year. New team, rainbow jersey, solid Giro in the legs. Now for the Tour. We know now what happened, but at the time it seemed like that was it. After taking the yellow jersey, Cadel ‘cracked’ on the next mountain stage. He lost something like 8 minutes & collapsed in tears in the arms of his teammate at the end of the stage. He had fallen the day he took the jersey. Still, there was an assumption that the effort of the Giro had caused him to crack. The gruelling Tour of Italy had certainly taken it’s toll, but we learned later was that he had broken a bone in his arm. He finished 26th. That he finished the Tour at all is incredible; but there seemed to be a sense that time was running out for Cadel to win the Tour, that the rivalry between Bertie and the brothers Schleck would dominate.
This year, I watched Cadel ride and win Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour of Romandie. I didn’t watch the Criterium du Dauphine, where he finished 2nd. I have watched every moment of this Tour. BMC’s Team Time Trial showed how determined, & more importantly, cohesive the squad was. For the first time, watching him guided through the peloton at all times by a black & red-clad teammate, rarely in trouble while almost all of the top riders fell (some injured so badly they were forced to abandon) … there was a sense that it really was his for the taking. After denying Bertie on the line of the Mur de Bretagne, Cadel took the podium for the first time as a stage winner at the Tour (he was awarded his first stage – the first 2007 TT – retrospectively, following Vino’s positive test, but was denied the honour of a podium). Why were they racing so hard? Well, Contador had to make up big time. But Cadel? To me, it was a perfect stage to go for. As he kicked past PhilGil, it was only Contador who could go with him. These men both know the meaning of ‘every second counts’. They have won and lost 3,000km races by a handful of seconds. Cadel threw his machine at the line. He won.
All I could think at that moment was how much Cadel wanted the victory & smiled. I smiled as his team rode hard in week one, even though Cadel wasn’t in yellow. A lot of people questioned why. I liked it. It was a psychological message to the teams of the other big boys. We’re here. We will race hard every day. Every day, for every second.
As they reached the Pyrenees, Cadel was still there. Every move marked. We transitioned to the Alps. Where the Tour is won and lost. The team gave its all. Leopard-Trek did what they do in every mountain stage – set an excruciating tempo to isolate the other elite riders so that Frank & Andy Schleck could attack and counter-attack their rivals. It didn’t work on the first day. They couldn’t shed the yellow jersey of Thomas Voeckler, let alone Cadel.
They had to switch tactics. On the path to the Galibier, Andy Schleck attacked early. He rode solo, to victory for 40 kilometres, and deservedly so. Meanwhile, Cadel reduced a 4′ gap almost entirely by himself to just two. He saved his Tour. He towed a pack of men up the climb with him. He had to. He wanted it.
Then, the feared show down on the Alpe d’Huez. Same-same … Leopard-Trek would try and explode the peloton early, even though it was a short stage. But Bertie – his chances of a Tour win seemingly over – launched an even more audacious attack with 90km to go. The vanquished champion, battered & unlucky, had failed to stay with Cadel on the Galibier – and now he was attacking before Leopard-Trek had time to organise it’s tank-style group attack. This was racing – this was panache – and threw the script out of the window. Already disoriented by what was unfolding, as the cameras lurched back to Cadel several times at the side of the road, until he changed bikes, he had lost 70″ on the leaders, and with it, I feared, the Tour de France. To me, BMC’s directuer sportif, John Lelangue, made the difference. Cadel went back to the peloton, back to his boys, instead of chasing solo, as Voeckler did. For me, it proved the difference. He was given the support he needed & saved the energy he needed at the end to go up the Alpe d’Huez, clawing every second back. The only downside was watching Bertie unable to reap the stage victory on what was one of the most audacious rides I’ve ever seen, befitting the champion he is.
… and so the Battle through the Alps finished. It would go down to the ‘race of truth’. Cadel versus the Schleck brothers and the clock. Would the maillot jaune give Andy Schleck the wings it gave Sastre?
This time, after those two huge efforts & refusal to lie down because of some bad luck with the bike, and despitemy nerves jangling, I believed he could do it. I believed he wanted it more. As every time check passed, & it became increasingly clear that Cadel Evans was riding the time trial of his life & would take the maillot jaune into Paris, I realised how much this moment meant to me & to millions of people around the world. All of the disappointments, all of the bad luck, all of the criticisms that he didn’t attack … all erased. Cadel rode so brilliantly he almost beat time-trial wunderkind, Tony Martin to finish second. He not only recouped the time Andy Schleck held, he smashed it. He left it all on the road and was presented with the maillot jaune on the only day it matters. To wear it into Paris.
Thank you to the riders, the teams, the SBS crew led by Mike Tomalaris for bringing us each stage, and to everyone who has shared this beautiful race with me, on Twitter & by reading my blog posts (especially Chiara Passerini!)
Chapeau, Cadel Evans. Le vainquer du Tour de France 2011.