Tour de France - Evans: Good people believed in me

Sun, 24 Jul 17:24:00 2011

When a 14-year-old Cadel Evans declared in 1991 that his ambition was to win the Tour de France, a lot of people around him thought it would turn out to be just another pipe dream.

Tour de France - Evans reflects on win

On Sunday, Evans proved that age was no barrier to fulfilling that goal as he became the first Australian to win the Tour and its oldest winner since 1923.

"It's been 20 years since I watched my very first Tour de France on TV and I said I'd like to win it. A lot of people didn't believe it," Evans, who was swamped by his BMC Racing team mates after crossing the finishing line on Sunday, said.

"But some very good people believed in me, from my very first coach right through to the ones who turned me to the road."

His beginnings in BMX racing were just a distant memory on Sunday as he led the parade all the way to the Champs Elysees and his path to glory symbolised the rise of road cycling Down Under.

The Katherine-born rider's talent was obvious early on when he joined the Australian Institute of Sport's cycling programme for mountain-biking under head coach Damian Grundy.

The 34-year-old became one of the world's best mountain bikers, twice winning the World Cup, and honed his skills during climbs and especially in descents, which proved useful in this year's Tour.

In 2001, Italian coach Aldo Sassi, in charge of the Mapei training centre, convinced the Australian to switch to the much more lucrative European road circuit, a move many of his countrymen, often trained on and for the track, were making at the time.

"Aldo Sassi always believed in me, more than I did myself," an emotional Evans said about the mentor who died of a brain tumour a year ago after turning the Australian into a road pro.

"He said to me at one point, I hope that you can win a grand Tour and I hope for you it is the Tour de France for it's the most prestigious. If you do, you'll become the most complete rider of your generation," added the BMC team leader, who became world champion in 2009 in Mendrisio, a few miles away from Sassi's home.

The world title was a turning point in Evans's career as he had always been considered a rider with enormous potential, but too conservative, lacking aggression and inspiration.

"To me personally, not a great deal has changed since that race in Mendrisio," he said.

But wearing rainbow jersey changed the way his rivals looked at him and his confidence grew after several frustrating experiences on big Tours.

He first burst on to the international stage in 2002 in the Giro d'Italia when he found himself the unwitting leader of the Mapei team and held the race leader's pink jersey for one day, before faltering to finish 14th.

"It took time to make the transition from a mountain bike into a road rider. My career was put on hold for two years," said Evans, whose 2003 and 2004 seasons were marred by crashes and injuries.

Even though he finished fourth in the 2006 Tour, he felt he did not get enough support from his then team, Belgium's Lotto who were too "focused on Robbie McEwen", his compatriot who won several Tour stages in bunch sprints.

The breakthrough came in 2007 when he finished second to Alberto Contador by 23 seconds, but it was a case of so near but yet so far for the ambitious Australian.

The next year, Evans was the clear favourite but a crash hampered his chances. Despite holding the yellow jersey for five days, he ended up losing to Spain's Carlos Sastre and described it as: "The hardest Tour de France I ever rode."

Luck again deserted Evans in 2010 as he crashed on the road to the ski resort of Morzine with the yellow jersey on his back and broke his elbow.

In 2011, he was finally able to say: "Luck has been good to me."

In a much more favourable environment since joining Team BMC after his 2009 world title, Evans left nothing to chance this time, gathering the best possible team around him and building his entire season around his sole goal of winning the Tour.

Whereas Australia have long prided themselves for their sporting excellence, be it in Olympic sports, cricket, tennis and golf to name just a few, Evans finally handed his nation a prize that had eluded them - until Sunday.

While there were riders from Down Under in the Tour as early as 1914, they belonged to heroic ages, like Hubert Opperman, who finished 18th in 1931 and became a cycling legend and a successful politician.

But the first time an Australian took the yellow jersey was 30 years ago, when Phil Anderson bravely challenged Bernard Hinault to seize the Tour lead.

Evans was only four-years old at the time.


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