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Inside the 2011 Tour de France with John Wilcockson: Cadel Evans’ triumph caps nearly a century of Aussies tackling the Tour

  • By John Wilcockson
  • Published Jul. 24, 2011
Evans opens his repeat attempt on June 30 in Liège, Belgium. Photo: AFP

Australians had been tackling the Tour for nearly a century before Cadel Evans finally won it. Photo: AFP

PARIS (VN) — For Australians, Cadel Evans’ time-trial trouncing of the Schleck brothers on Saturday to clinch a first Tour de France victory for his country was one of those “where were you when” moments.

And for one Aussie in particular, my journalist colleague Rupert Guinness of the Sydney Morning Herald, Cadel’s triumph has even more meaning because he’s “been there” chronicling the increasing successes of riders from Down Under for a quarter of a century.

“This is the 25th anniversary of my first coming to report the Tour,” Rupert said Saturday night at the pressroom in the Grenoble Palais des Sports. “I guess that makes it even more special.”

Rupert came to Europe after being inspired by Phil Anderson, the first-ever Aussie to wear the yellow jersey, about whom the young reporter wanted to write a book (he still hasn’t). Instead, in 1987, he was offered an editor’s job in London at Winning: Bicycle Racing Illustrated, the magazine I’d run for several years before moving to Colorado to help start the company that bought VeloNews in 1988.

A few years later, we hired Rupert as our first European-based correspondent, before he moved back to Australia where he progressed up the journalism ladder to become a senior sportswriter at the Herald. At this year’s Tour, he’s been working to the wee hours every morning, writing up to five stories a day for his newspaper, most of them about Evans.

The publisher even held open the Herald’s Sunday edition to print Rupert’s story of Evans’ historic triumph on the front page. He had to file his report within minutes of Evans putting on the yellow jersey in Grenoble. That’s how important cycling, and the Tour de France in particular, has become to the Australians.

The pioneers

It’s a little-know fact that, almost 60 years before the first American rode the Tour (Jonathan Boyer in 1981), Aussie pioneers Don Kirkham and Snowy Munro became the first non-Europeans to start La Grande Boucle (they both finished in the top 20 in the 1914 edition).

Then, in 1931, the Australian cycling legend Hubert “Oppy” Opperman — who would go on to be a leading politician — made a major impact on the Tour by placing 12th. That remained the best performance by an Aussie until Anderson made his sensational Tour debut in ’81, pulling on the yellow jersey in the first week after climbing with defending champion Bernard Hinault to the Pla d’Adet summit in the Pyrénées.

Anderson lost the jersey to Hinault in a time trial the next day, and finished 10th overall; but he was a true contender the following year. He won the second stage into Nancy to again wear the yellow jersey, which he kept for more than a week this time before once again conceding it to Hinault. Anderson took fifth that year and slotted into the same place in 1985.

Anderson (who won a second stage in 1991 with the Motorola team of Jim Ochowicz) inspired a new generation of cyclists from Down Under, and soon the Australian Institute for Sport was producing Olympic- and world championship-winning track racers, many of whom converted to road racing.

There was a hiatus in Aussie Tour results in the mid-1990s until sprinters Robbie McEwen, Stuart O’Grady and Baden Cooke all won the green jersey in the 2000s. But there was no sign of a potential Tour winner until the emergence of Michael Rogers (ninth overall in 2006) and Evans (whose seven years of riding the Tour produced two top 10s and two second places before his breakthrough victory this weekend).

The future

Evans might well have been a Tour contender much earlier in his career had there been a better structure for young Australian road racers. During his transition from a World Cup-winning mountain biker, Evans showed his climbing talents as early as 2001 when as a part-time road racer he won three European stage races (Tour of Austria, Brixia Tour and Across Lausanne).

Final GC

1. Cadel Evans, 3,330km in 86:12:22
2. Andy Schleck, at 1:34
3. Fränk Schleck, at 2:30
4. Thomas Voeckler, at 3:20
5. Alberto Contador, at 3:57
6. Samuel Sanchez, at 4:55
7. Damiano Cunego, at 6:05
8. Ivan Basso, at 7:23
9. Tom Danielson, at 8:15
10. Jean-Christophe Peraud, at 10:11
11. Pierre Rolland, at 10:43
12. Rein Taaramae, at 11:29
13. Kevin De Weert, at 16:29
14. Jérôme Coppel, at 18:26
15. Arnold Jeannesson, at 21:20

In his first full pro road season with the famed Mapei team in 2002 he was wearing the pink jersey at the Giro d’Italia until flaming out on the final climb of the final mountain stage. He would again wear the Giro leader’s jersey in 2010 and the gold jersey at the Vuelta a España in 2009, and Evans briefly wore the Tour’s yellow jersey in both 2008 and 2010 before taking it to Paris this year.

One handicap Evans has had over the years has been bad luck (broken collarbones, broken arm, badly timed mechanicals), but until he joined BMC last year Evans and his teams were always mismatches. It might have been different had the Mapei team not disbanded at the end of his single season there, because that’s where he first trained under Aldo Sassi, the strongly anti-doping coach who died of brain cancer eight months ago and to whom Evans has dedicated his Tour triumph.

Evans would probably have followed a quicker path to winning the Tour had he had the opportunities that are now open to Aussie riders. A European-based national under-23 development team has existed for a few years; this year, Australian Sport opened an impressive training center in Lucca, Italy; and next year will see the first season of a new Australian-sponsored elite pro team, GreenEdge, whose roster will be about 75-percent Aussie (and whose fancy team bus was being test driven during this Tour de France).

That’s a massive improvement on what pioneers like Anderson had to endure to make the big time 30 years ago and bears no comparison with Kirkham and Munro’s experience in 1914, when they trained for the Tour on stationary bikes during their multi-week sea crossing from Australia.

But they, Evans and Rupert all have at least one thing in common: a love of bike racing.

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