There's just one day of racing left in his illustrious cycling career, and that being perhaps more of a celebratory parade than a target (the race is named after him, ya know). And with that, Cadel Evans will retire holding the title of Australia's greatest cyclist.
Evans' pioneering career is well known by its high points -- his premature day in the maglia rosa, way back when; his world championship; and finally, after some painfully close tries, his conquering of the sport's ultimate goal, the Tour de France. His rise from mountain biking to Tour and World Champion was complete, and remarkable -- as much as his rise from oddball to respected sportsman par excellence.
For years, it must be remembered, Evans was the prickly foil to more talented riders like Alberto Contador, or the helpless individual succumbing to team tactics, when Carlos Sastre took the yellow off his back in 2008. Evans responded in a cold, nasal voice, as memorable for admonishing anyone who got too close to his dog as for his on-bike exploits. But the Cuddles narrative evolved into something splendid. All that seriousness and lack of charisma (among the media anyway) begat a grinder, on and off the bike, a rider of relentless determination and guts so shockingly at odds with his media persona but in a way completely consistent. He wasn't going to wow you. He wasn't going to be stopped either.
Evans' defeats were labeled as disasters but not for lack of effort or power. He announced himself as an elite time triallist at the 2006 Tour de Romandie, where he put roughly a minute (give or take) into both Contador and Alejandro Valverde to snatch the overall win from their respective grasps. Within two years he became known for his Tour losses, but Evans turned the tables on everyone (myself included) who saw these indignities as his fate, turning himself inside out at the end of a World Championship road course in Mendrisio, Switzerland, pedaling distance from his in-season European home. Evans the loser was now Evans the World Champion, the rider who stopped following the Tour champions, and who on this day attacked the cream of the world cycling crop, pulling off a 5km escape for the ages.
Evans then moved to BMC, where things only got better. After years at Lotto, seeking more support and getting none, the World Champion found a cushy new setup with the best bikes, an ascending roster of talent, and a dedication to his goals beyond what he'd previously enjoyed. His Rainbow Tour included a Giro stage win under brutal conditions -- another testament to his toughness -- as well as victory at La Fleche Wallonne. He threatened to win neither the Giro nor the Tour, but that happens when your team is not World Tour and is pitching for race starts. One year later, with all of BMC's ducks in a row, Evans made it to the sport's summit.
In a disjointed Tour, led by Thomas Voeckler for much of the race, Evans played the role of stalking horse, much as the CSC boys had done to him three years earlier. Only this time, the Schleck Brothers were the prey, thanks to a competition-ending stage 20 time trial that was sure to give Evans his big chance. On consecutive days, Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador staged heroic attacks over the sport's most famous summits -- the Col d'Agnel, Col du Galibier and Alpe d'Huez -- attempting to bludgeon the less-talented climber Evans into submission. But each time Evans remained calm, rode his guts out, and salvaged more than enough of the time gap to virtually ensure his ultimate victory. When the week was over, the Australian national anthem played over the Champs-Elysees for the first time. And Evans was never spoken of as "eternal second" again.
Hitting his mid-thirties, Evans saw his window close quickly, with the victories and Tour escapades drying up. At 34, he was the Tour's oldest winner post-WWII, and it began to show right away. He never challenged for the Tour podium again, though in 2013 he righted one "wrong," taking third at the Giro d'Italia and writing a final chapter he wasn't able to complete way back in 2002, when he found himself in pink with one major mountain stage remaining. As a neo-pro.
Evans' career will always be remembered fondly in Italy, where he made his in-season home, and met his wife Chiara. That day in Pink was spoken of for quite some time -- prescient Italian fans saw more than another flash in the pan. But ultimately it's back in Oz where Evans had the greatest impact.
In contrast to its closest competitor among "new" cycling nations, the United States, Australia has been cranking out a steady stream of high-level, winning cyclists for more than a generation, but with few major milestones conquered. America, meanwhile, had a mere fraction of the number of riders anywhere near the top level, but still claimed three Tours de France, a Giro d'Italia, and three rainbow jerseys before the new millennium. Greg LeMond was one in a million, literally.
Still, Australia has spent most of the 2000s ranked in the top six or seven worldwide, almost always claiming the distinction of top non-European country, and its base of young riders promise more and more success. I'm not ready to pinpoint the next Aussie Tour winner, but Simon Gerrans is a world champion just waiting to happen.
There are other pioneers, like Phil Anderson, who helped pave the way for the current generation of antipodean talent. But it was Evans, the former mountain-biker, who showed how to succeed, how to fail, how to suffer and persevere, and how to win. He proved the doubters wrong, people like me who watched the Sastres and Contadors and Schlecks dance past him and assumed the game was up, that Evans didn't have what it takes. Sometimes what you see on the outside is such a small fraction of what makes up a professional cyclist.
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