ADELAIDE, Australia (VN) — Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) showed glimpses of the rider who won the 2011 Tour de France during a thrilling return to form to open the 2014 season with a stage win and overall podium at the Santos Tour Down Under last week.
Though the 36-year-old was eventually out-gunned by Simon Gerrans and Orica-GreenEdge in a fight for time bonuses, losing the GC by just one second, the American team carries momentum out of Australia that should pay dividends as Evans pedals toward the Giro d’Italia.
“Cadel did all that was expected of him, and more,” said BMC sporting manager Allan Peiper. “It’s still four months to go to the Giro, but this is all part of the effort to build up Cadel for May.”
The success in Australia couldn’t have come at a better time for Evans.
Though Gerrans ended up claiming the Tour Down Under for a record third time, Evans came up the winner in many other ways.
The former world champion is intent on shaking the bad luck and health struggles that marred his performances since his historic 2011 Tour victory. After Evans struggled through 2012 and 2013, BMC made the difficult decision to throw the weight of the team behind Tejay van Garderen, who will start the Tour as outright leader.
That transition of power was already in the cards when BMC signed van Garderen in 2012, but team management made the inevitable decision last fall. Instead of aiming for a Tour that Peiper said would be all but impossible to win, the team is preparing Evans for an all-out push for the maglia rosa.
Peiper said strong rides Down Under, including a second-place result in the Australian national championships, will bolster Evans’ confidence in the build-up to the Giro’s May 9 start in Belfast.
“[The stage] win is important for his confidence,” Peiper said. “Everyone can see the happiness that he has when he’s riding his bike. He might underestimate the boost he’s had from the Australian public, from the national championships, and racing this week.”
In fact, Evans seemed like a man reborn throughout his Tour Down Under season debut.
The UCI WorldTour opener marked the first time he’d raced on home roads since 2010, when he last started the Tour Down Under. Since then, he’s mushroomed into a national hero after becoming the first Australian to win the Tour.
Tour Down Under officials estimated they saw a 10-percent bump in spectator attendance due to Evans’ participation.
“It’s been nice to race here in front of Australian fans again,” Evans said. “Most years I have had different goals and couldn’t race here. This year, the Tour Down Under fit in perfectly in our preparation for the Giro.”
Evans’ return to the Tour Down Under reaffirmed his stature as Australia’s most famous rider. He received huge cheers each day at sign-in, and fans mobbed him for photos and autographs. Henk Vogels, an ex-pro and current director at Drapac, said Evans is Australia’s lone cyclist who eclipses the sport and brings in the average sports fan.
“Only one word, he’s a cult figure,” Vogels told VeloNews. “For general public, who are not even cyclists, people take notice of Cadel. What we saw up the Corkscrew [climb] will go down in Australian cycling folklore. What he did was unbelievable; you don’t just drop Richie Porte and Simon Gerrans. He means a lot for Australian cycling. He’s been an incredible ambassador.”
Evans was impressive over the short but steep Corkscrew Hill climb to take his first WorldTour victory since 2012. As Vogels pointed out, he dropped Porte and Gerrans, two of Australia’s best right now. Porte said he was equally impressed with Evans, and the pair will among the top favorites for pink come May.
“He’s our biggest star,” Porte told VeloNews. “It’s good to see Cadel back in good form. It’s good for Aussie cycling. It was a popular win, that’s what gets people excited, they love a champion, that’s what Cadel is.”
Porte remembered his first major race with Evans, during the 2010 Giro, when the young Tasmanian enjoyed a breakout performance and Evans was racing with the rainbow stripes.
“He’s a rival now, but he’s done a lot for the sport,” Porte said. “I think back to the Giro in 2010, when I had a breakout performance, he was there telling me where to ride, positioning. I cannot imagine he’ll help me this year.”
Evans seems to have wrapped his head around the fact that it will be the Giro, not the Tour, that will be the central focus of his season.
Peiper said the team is giving him full support for an all-out push for the GC reminiscent to his 2011 Tour campaign. Instead of riding for the yellow jersey, the team will set its sights on the maglia rosa.
“Cadel can win the Giro. That is a fact. You cannot do both [Giro and Tour], not at his age, not in this era,” Peiper told VeloNews. “Realistically, he can win the Giro. Going up against guys who are there, it’s not realistic he can win the Tour again.”
Setting up a cohesive unit for the Giro assault, the same core group of riders will race all season alongside Evans. The support staff, soigneurs, mechanics, sport directors, led by Fabio Baldato, and media staff will all travel with Evans from here to the Giro start in Belfast, Ireland.
“Cadel is a guy who needs tranquility to function well,” Peiper said. “He never really sat down and thought about making the Giro his mission. Now that he’s doing a program centered on the Giro, he’s embracing the idea wholeheartedly.”
The entire Tour Down Under roster, with the exception of neo-pro Rick Zabel, will all be heading to the Giro. Among them is American Brent Bookwalter, who has been one of Evans’ most steadfast teammates, and supported him in the 2011 Tour.
“Everyone is on point. Cadel is fit, motivated, relaxed, and happy,” Bookwalter told VeloNews. “It’s exciting to be looking at the Giro again. That was my first grand tour with Cadel in 2010, so I am motivated to switch up the season a little bit, and go for the pink jersey.
“Cadel went there there last year with a nice podium place without a lot of preparation. So this year, we’re building toward the Giro, and in a perfect world, we’ll be on the top step.”
A competitive Giro field
That sets the stage for what should be a very competitive Giro. Along with Porte and Evans, other top riders such as 2012 runner-up Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), Liège–Bastogne–Liège winner Daniel Martin (Garmin-Sharp), 2013 runner-up Rigoberto Urán (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), breakout Italian Diego Ulissi (Lampre-Merida), and Tour de France best young rider Nairo Quintana (Movistar) will all be gunning for the pink jersey.
For Evans, the Giro represents a new challenge, and a new opportunity to re-stake his claim as one of the peloton’s best.
A professional since his late teens, when he first turned to mountain biking before dedicating to the road full-time in 2002, Evans is now looking at retirement.
Journalists in Australia queried Evans about his plans, but he did not sound like a rider considering hanging up his cleats just yet.
“I have a lot of experience as a racer. I don’t have a lot of experience about making decisions about retirement,” he said. “You have to ask someone else.”
Among the whispers surrounding Evans’ future is the suggestion that he could leave BMC when his contract ends at the end this season and join the Australian Orica team for 2015 as part of a “home team” swansong.
For now, however, Evans is focusing on being ready for the Giro. And if the Tour Down Under is any indication, he seems to have rediscovered his mojo.