Cadel Evans’s humility hid his brilliance from critics
In July 2006, I was standing in a queue at Charles De Gaulle airport with my wife and daughter when I heard a slightly high-pitched, Australian voice behind me.
Looking around, I recognised the man whom we had watched the day before finish fifth in the Tour de France on the Champs-Elysees.
He was later elevated to fourth in that first “post-Lance” tour after the winner, Floyd Landis, was disqualified for using drugs. It was the best result ever for an Australian, eclipsing Phil Anderson’s two fifth placings in La Grand Boucle.
For the next few minutes we chatted to Cadel Evans and his Italian wife, Chiara. He was looking forward to returning to his European home having spent the previous 21 days riding more than 3,500 kilometres around France at an average speed of over 40 kph.
Although tired, he was relaxed and happy to talk to a few Aussies at the airport. He enthused about returning to Barwon Heads for a break over Christmas. Before we left to go our separate ways, Chiara offered to take a photo of us together.
It was the first time that most Australians had heard of him. If an Aussie cyclist was known, it was more likely to be Robbie McEwen, who had stood on the podium in Paris as wearer of the green sprint jersey, or Stuart O’Grady, the prolific winner of track and road races.
Many people even had difficulty pronouncing his Christian name when they first read it.
In the next two years he would come tantalisingly close to winning the Tour. Somehow his Belgium based Lotto team didn’t seem to have the right support riders. Other teams protected their climbing stars, helping them over the high passes in the Alps and Pyrenees. Cadel often seemed alone, fighting odds beyond his control.
It didn’t seem to affect his easy-going personality. At this year’s Jayco Series in Victoria, he participated in Amy’s Ride with thousands of recreational cyclists. After assisting legendary commentator, Phil Liggett, he chatted with fans, signing autographs and having his photo taken for half an hour or more.
On another occasion, he chatted away for 10 minutes with my youngest son, encouraging his cycling.
The high hopes of an Australian winner crashed in this year’s tour when Cadel finished 30th. Something clearly troubled him, but apart from some cryptic comments, he kept it to himself.
Then he had bad luck in the Vuelta a Espana – the Tour of Spain – losing valuable time with a puncture at the foot of a steep climb.
He fought back to finish third in a tour he thought he could have won.
Many critics wrote him off. He could only ride one pace. He didn’t have the brilliance of Armstrong or Contador. He hadn’t won a major one day classic.
The Swiss champion, Fabian Cancellara, dismissed Evans’ chances in the road race.
All that criticism was put to rest in five kilometres at Mendrisio, Switzerland, on Sunday.
Approaching the last hill in the 262 km World Championship Road Race, Cadel rode away from some of the best cyclists on the globe.
In doing so, he became the first Australian winner of the prestigious event. Michael Rogers had won the Time Trial three times, but Robbie McEwen’s second placing was the closest any Australian had come to wearing the Rainbow Jersey for the road race.
It was fitting result for an understated champion who conducts himself with modesty and humility.
It will also be a big boost for next year’s World Championships, to be held in Melbourne and Geelong.
No doubt Cadel will still line up to sign autographs, but the queue will be much longer.
The only sour note was the decision of a local television station to switch from the cycling race to a Formula One Grand Prix event half way through the race.
Someone should inform them that more bikes than cars are purchased in Australia each year.
And more people went to see the Tour Down Under in Adelaide than attended the Grand Prix in Melbourne!
Kevin Andrews is the Federal Member for Menzies in Victoria. He is a keen recreational cyclist.
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