July 25, 2011, Paris, France
Cadel Evans brought a new spirit to the Tour de France this year, and perhaps a new methodology.
The oldest rider since World War II to win the Tour, the 34-year-old Evans rode a sensible, if not patient Tour in which he worked hard to protect his gains when he saw them about to erode.
The first Australian to win the Tour, Evans also broadened the world appeal of the biggest stage race in France.
First it was the Americans 25 years ago with Greg Lemond: now the Australians. Who’s next, posed the French newspaper, L’Equipe: the Asians perhaps, or the Africans? Notably, the race is getting bigger in its perspective, today France, tomorrow, the world.
After his win in Paris, Evans passed through the crowds surrounded by handlers, but with his
head down, not even acknowledging the many faces around him who were looking to see his joy. That expression only came later when he was surrounded by his teammates, practically in private.
Even when he rode down the Champs Elysees in a traditional post race procession, he held his head erect and unsmiling, barely interacting with the crowds.
One could also say Cadel was the sleeper of the Tour, because in the stages that passed from day to day, he rarely got higher than third. The fact that he only won one stage before Grenoble says a lot about his style.
And few would have guessed that the rider could take time from two of the best cyclists in the world, Andy Schleck, the Luxeumbourgan, and Spaniard Alberto Contador, the defending champion.
But Evans’ steady approach to the race paid off: he attacked only when he really needed to, and used his best qualities and training to his advantage. He was second twice in the Tour, in 2007 and 2008, but he was also more recently the World Champion in 2009, and winner of the Fleche Wallone in 2010.
Obviously he used his one-day race ability to perfection, preserving energy in many of the stages, and allowing the Yellow Jersey winner of the day to defend their title.
The Australian also comes from a long background of cross country racing, and in 1998 and
1999 he was twice the winner of the World Cup in the format.
Some argue that one’s training before the age of 23 has much to do with your lifetime racing abilities (as much as our personalities are already formed by 23), and that the precise techniques he used would have benefited him in the overall counting of minutes towards the winner.
For example, taking the turns on the time trial course would have
been as precise as the turns he had to take in a cross country race, shaving off seconds on turns and looking for advantage in every corner, on every trajectory.
But it also gave him the ability to stabilize his heart rate at a very high level for a two hour time period, the advantage he needed when he chased Andy Schleck up the Galibier.
Then there are the two brothers Andy and Frank Schleck, together on the podium. Many prognosticators expected Andy to be the winner this year, but early on his brother showed more strength and promise, stepping into the top echelon of the general classification with some of the greatest riders in the world.
And prior to his evocative performance at l’Izoard when he broke away from Contador, Evans,
and Voeckler, and stayed away to take the highest peak in the Tour de France le Galibier alone, we might have thought this was not going to be Andy Schleck’s year. Not at all. We called him the dragon sleeping with one eye open, and waiting for the right moment to take an advantage.
So even though yet one more year he is second on the podium, as he was in 2009 and 2010 as well, the 26-year-old Andy Schleck is still quite young and has many more Tours ahead of him.
Let’s also not discount the performance of his brother Frank, who faded in previous Tours as the mountains became more demanding, but this year improved not only his climbing, but also his time trial performance, thereby keeping himself in the top three.
No small matter that two brothers stepped up to the podium for the first time in history of the Tour.
There to honor them were the highest officials of Luxembourg, including First Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, a distinction and element of extraordinary theater to the already over the top “teatre du tour.”
Still this Tour had the strange feeling of being lost and not altogether coherent. One reason, all the familiar stars were not performing at their expected level.
Some media have erroneously jumped to the conclusion that there is less or even no doping and they point to the efforts of Contador and Schleck who in most cases were unable to hold off other riders, with the exception of Schleck pulling away alone on L’Izoard, and not one rider standing out in the general classification.
But that would be a miscalculation and an assumption which has no basis in fact, any more
than a claim that there was doping at this year’s Tour which could also be true.
Officials at the Tour spoke off the record and without attribution to CI that the riders are always one step ahead of the testers, and that being true, they never assume that no rider is doping, only that they have not been caught.
One could also point to the performances of some of the riders on specific days, such as Pierre Roland at the Alpe D’Huez, or Andy Schleck on the Galibier to say that perhaps there still is doping, it’s just a different kind, and its being used on and off, depending on the day.
Still, Contador crashed no less than four times early on in the Tour, and was nursing a bad knee throughout the remainder of the Tour.
In his case, perhaps a huge disappointment in the Tour of 2011. But he arrived at the start line with a new team that had little strength behind it, certainly nothing like the strength of BMC, the team of Cadel Evans, or Garmin Cervelo who won the overall team classification and helped Thor Hushovd to his two stage wins.
Contador’s early crashes did not help, putting him into a similar situation experienced by Lance Armstrong last year, and in a deficit that was difficult to make up over the following stages.
And though his fate is still in the hands of the world sports arbitration panel to determine if he will lose his 2010 Tour and 2011 Giro victories, Contador put in a very brave attempt to gain back time in several stages, the most aggressive at the Alpe D’Huez where he rode away several times from his fellow riders, leaving them in the dust.
In the mountains Contador showed his characteristic bravado best on those days despite having a swollen knee that needed acupuncture every night in order to calm the swelling.
Another reason that the Tour is different this year no doubt has to do with the absence of Lance Armstrong who has in the past always served as a point of reference and a rallying point for other riders, either as someone to beat (prior to 2010) or someone to ridicule, as they did in 2010 after he crashed several times, and rode but did not compete to the end.
Somehow or another Armstrong’s ability to play the Tour like a chess game gave it a calculated consistency and an urgency that seems to have been lost.
One cannot also discount the changes brought by the course changes.
For one, the battering that riders took from the start of the Pyrenees through the end of the Alpes can only be said as close to sadistic. It certainly felt that way for this reporter, for example climbing the Galibier and then descending it took hours.
Once perched in the clouds, journalists sat for hours in freezing temperatures where only the eagles normally fly, and snow graced the ground. Fog rolled in reducing the temperature even more, and casting shivers all around. One could only imagine what the riders were feeling.
Other stages provided climbing followed by downhill finishes, allowing for many more breakaways, and breaking the lock that climbers might have on the entire Tour.
Thusly, both Voeckler and Evans had an advantage, not being pure climbers, that they could make up time between mountains or at their conclusion, as was the case in stage 19 when riders had a massive, endless descent from le Galibier to Bourg d’Oisans, and is also exactly when the riders made time back from the dent created by Contador.
Those debates notwithstanding, the Tour had the strange feeling of not being in total control of itself. Minus any one particular star, and with Thomas Voeckler owning the Yellow Jersey for ten days straight but everyone—including himself when he was interviewed, assuming that he could not hold it, the Tour had the impression of being conducted on another planet, and without a conductor. It seemed for the believing that not even God was present when it rained in droves, and froze the riders, the crowds and the journalists.
Add to that the sleeper win by Cadel Evans who only once took a stage during the 19 days before Grenoble, one could almost think it was a different race too.
But this Tour also had some magnificent firsts: for one finally a Frenchman was in control of the Yellow Jersey for the longest time in at least my memory. On the back of Thomas Voeckler, a sweet-faced, shy, family man, the Yellow Jersey gave hope to France. Never mind that it eventually went to the shoulders of an Australian: it perched for 10 days on a Frenchman.
His long reign as king of the Tour must have fetched his Europcar sponsors a bundle, a fact that was evident even before the Tour started because they were the only car rental at the airport that had an hour long line, and in fact, the only car rental with any customers at all.
“You allowed us to dream again, Voeckler,” read the signs held by fans in Grenoble as Voeckler stretched before the start. And indeed, they did. Though Voeckler may be more of a classics rider, he showed that he can hold his ground against the best riders in the world.
Pierre Roland also brought fame and pride to France in his astounding run up the Alpe D’Huez, besting Samuel Sanchez to the line (who eventually won the Red Polka Dot jersey) and the best climber in the world perhaps, Alberto Contador. That move gave Rolland the best young rider award, the White Jersey. Hopefully he will be one of the future bests in the Tour.
Other French riders showed how well they could compete in a race which in the last 20 years has looked more like another country’s race than their own. Sylvain Chavanel, Jerome Charteau, David Moncoutie, and Jeremy Roy, all gave riders and fans something to watch as they raced their way through the French countryside out in the front for hundreds of kilometers. The 34-year-old Jean Christophe Peraud gave fans something to think about coming in 10th overall at the end of the Tour.
But let’s not forget the Norwegians and the Belgians. Though Thor Hushovd’s push for something other than the Green Jersey may have been disorienting for traditionalists, his two stage wins in Lourdes (a downhill after a climb), and in Gap (another downhill after a climb), showed that he was something more than Green, which effectively he allowed Cavendish to win this year by not competing for it.
Not that Cavendish did not deserve to win the Green Jersey, but because Hushovd is the better of the two when it comes to climbing, and last year was better able to pick up points at the intermediate sprints in the mountains.
Norwegian Edvald Boasson Hagen of Team Sky also astonished fans by beating out Matt Goss and Thor Hushovd in a sprint to the finish in the sixth stage into Lisieux.
As for the Belgians, Philippe Gilbert was another stunning newcomer to the Tour, who wasn’t even supposed to be here at the start but was added to the Omega Pharma Lotto roster at the last minute. Good job for that one, because he and fellow Belgian Jelle Vanendert managed to wake up the peloton on more than a few occasions, in particular when Gilbert won the first stage of the Tour. I am sure we will be seeing more of both of them in the future.
Finally let us consider Mark Cavendish, who managed to make it through the climbing stages of this year’s Tour to enable him to win the Green jersey. No small accomplishment for a man who really is much better at a flat sprint.
Yesterday at the finish line we stood next to a gyrating little five-year-old named Finnbar, and his mother. She introduced herself as the “girlfriend” of Mark Cavendish. It’s a small world, I said to myself, after having written about Peta Todd on several occasions, and her many tweets backing her man the Cav’.
Here she was with Finnbar, he dressed in Cavendish’s white HTC Highroad’s bike jersey (it almost fit the small child), and a cap adorned with the signatures of all the members of the team.
Ms. Todd was instructing Finnbar to scream “GO MARK CAVENDISH” every time the Cav’ came around the eight turns on the Champs Elysees. Which he did. Ms. Todd was concerned that her boyfriend might not win, but we knew better and suggested that no matter how far ahead the breakaway was, and in the event there were no crashes, today he would win.
I tried to teach little Finnbar how to say go Mark Cavendish in French (Allez-y Cavendish), but he wasn’t buying it.
Later after hearing Ms. Todd’s shouts, and coming late to the story, a swarm of opportunistic journalists who didn’t know Ms. Todd from a pea in a pod came swirling around her and whisked her off for some lame TV opportunity for which the famed nude model was doubtless unprepared.