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Focus on the Favorites: Two Aussie Wannabees

Cadel Evans and Michael Rogers have taken two differing routes to more or less the same place: the second tier of this year's yellow jersey intrigue.

Evans is an inexperienced 30 years old, thanks to his late start -- he was a MTB champ before coming to his senses and switching to the road. Rogers is an older 27, having started out at age 19 with Mapei. Evans began in Italy before wasting two years at T-Mobile. Rogers began in Belgium, wasting time trying to ride grand tours for various Patrick Lefevre classics teams. Evans was something of a found object for Lotto after two aimless, injured years; Rogers has been tabbed for greatness long before it was even slightly appropriate to do so, and was drafted by T-Mob as Ullrich's successor. Evans is a small guy who excels on the highest climbs; Rogers is a powerful three-time world time trial champion. Evans speaks softly of his hopes for a Tour podium; Rogers talks of lining up in London to win. Evans has a pack of wily vets supporting him and a team with two clear objectives: McEwen's sprints and Evans' podium place. Rogers is backed by a flotilla of young talent with a handful of murky priorities.

With so much in common (ahem), it makes sense that the two riders find themselves linked in this column, and IMHO on the road. Evans' 5th place last year matched the highest Aussie placing in the Tour (Phil Anderson did it twice), so both riders stand on the precipice of setting a new standard for their country. And however different they may be in style, I rate their chances of maximal Oz glory just about dead even: nobody is picking either of them to win, but they are two of the Tour's most intriguing second-tier GC danger men.

Evans' trajectory is actually quite easy to map. Healthy at last, he was 8th in the 2005 Tour, occasionally matching Lance Armstrong and Ivan Basso before eventually giving up some time in the climbs and more in the time trials. Last year he came back a different rider, one who could win in certain time trials such as the rolling Tour de Romandie course. Again at the Tour he generally stayed with the front group one the climbs except for one or two occasions, and conceded significant time in the first (flat) time trial, before riding a solid last ITT. Last seen, he was slowly gaining on GC at the Dauphine Libere, and finished second overall, 15 seconds behind Cristophe Moreau. Evans placed fourth in both the Anneyron time trial (slight climbing) and on Mt. Ventoux. Steady progress is all anyone ever says about him, when they're not criticizing him for riding conservatively. Particularly in the time trials, Evans has shown tremendous improvement and is a threat to win if the course has enough rolls and bumps to slow down the power riders. Logically, 8th is followed by 5th which is followed by 3rd. If others don't step up, this is well within his abilities.

Rogers, meanwhile, is more of a second-tier climber, occasionally finishing right next to his countryman Evans, but often conceding a minute or two on the highest ascents. In finishing tenth at last year's Tour, Rogers rode a fabulous flat time trial at Rennes (stage 7) into third overall, just behind Floyd Landis. But he slipped a bit en route to Pla-de-Beret, held steady around 8th place, then faded in the Alps, conceding a minute at Alpe d'Huez, two more the next day, and another five minutes on the notorious stage 17. The final bumpy Montceau-les-mines ITT was nothing to write home about either, as Rogers finished over four minutes back of winner Honchar and 3.00 behind Landis.

This year, however, Rogers is riding for himself, not Ullrich or (in case of scandal) Kloden... just Rogers. Last seen he was pulling out of the Tour de Suisse with a nagging knee issue, and half this post could be a complete waste if whatever issue he had isn't resolved in time. However, his second overall at the Volta a Catalunya in May included 2nd in the queen stage and 4th in an uphill ITT.

Evans' trajectory looks better, even assuming Rogers' knee is all set to go. But if Evans still has one clear vulnerability, it's long, flat time trials. And if Rogers has one clear advantage, it's the same. And guess what the defining characteristic of this year's parcours is? If the Tour ran the same route every year, it would be easy to assume you could subtract two or three placings from each riders' last, best efforts for this year's GC. But the emphasis on power time trialing, a full 109km of it, makes Rogers a serious dark-horse threat. A better bet is that he'll tire in the Pyrenees, but if he doesn't, if Rogers can limit his losses, how high up can he finish? IMHO this is one of the great intriguing story lines in this year's Tour... provided his knee is OK. By contrast, if Rogers is an outside threat at a quantum leap, Evans is an almost certain bet for slight improvement, but as far as the maillot jaune is concerned, Evans will probably have to wait another year, keep plugging away and working on his already phenomenal form, and before long, on the right course, he will definitely bag that podium place... with no limit on which one.