Tour de France: Triumph in Evans' reach after years as nearly man
The Australian veteran looks set to win today after a superb performance in the final time trial but will be hoping history does repeat itself, writes Alasdair Fotheringham in Grenoble
Barring any last-minute disaster, Cadel Evans will be crowned Australia's first Tour de France winner today in Paris after the 34-year-old former mountain biker ousted Andy Schleck in yesterday's decisive time trial.
Following three weeks of crashes, all-out mountain attacks and the most miserable weather in years, only 95 kilometres in the largely ceremonial final stage separate the BMC veteran from cycling's biggest crown.
With a final margin of more than 2min 30sec over Schleck on Grenoble's rolling course to lead him by 1min 34sec overall, the former world champion's rise to yellow yesterday was hardly nailbiting.
More than 20 kilometres from the finish, a graph across the bottom of French television's broadcasts showed that the Australian's remorseless pursuit of Schleck – 57 seconds ahead of Evans going into yesterday – had already tipped definitively in the BMC rider's favour.
There were no crashes or accidents to pepper the clinical dismantling of Schleck's brief reign in yellow as Evans pounded on, his mouth wide open and head bobbing, towards the greatest success of his career.
However, given Evans' track record in final Tour time trials – he had lost the race in 2007 and 2008 in the final race against the clock by painfully slender margins – and the high degree of uncertainty that has surrounded this year's race in general, it was perhaps wise not to make too many predictions.
History was not in Evans' favour either, given that 18 of the 26 men who have led the race on Alpe d'Huez (as Schleck did on Friday) have then gone on to win the Tour. Finally, though, the Australian delivered the knock-out blow that was lacking in his previous Tour bids even if his secondary goal yesterday, winning the stage, eluded him – by just seven seconds, as Germany's Tony Martin prevailed.
No final time trial win then, but there can be no criticising Evans' superb all-round performance. He delivered a major warning shot when he won on the summit of the Mur de Bretagne in the first week, and followed that up with consistent, if conservative, racing in the Pyrenees.
The Alps could have turned sour for him, as he was initially unable – or unwilling – to chase Andy Schleck when the lanky climber from Luxembourg powered away 60 kilometres from the finish for an epic solo stage win on the Galibier pass. After hesitating for too long, which almost cost him the Tour, Evans' counter-charge on the final climb kept him in contention despite Schleck's spectacular long-distance attack – without a doubt the high point of the Tour.
Evans' sense of Groundhog Day must have kicked in on Friday, too, when his bike suffered mechanical problems just as another rival, in this case Alberto Contador, launched a blistering long-range attack, and he lost almost two minutes on Andy Schleck and the Spaniard.
But with his team better organised than on Thursday, the gaps slowly came down and on Alpe d'Huez, despite Schleck taking the yellow jersey, for the Australian the Tour was all but in the bag.
"The key has been consistency and experience," Evans said. "We're always a product of the environment around us. When things are wrong or going wrong, I get nervous. This time I did a lot of planning, training camps and preparation and a lot of people have been working hard behind the scenes.
"Today, though, we went through the process, like we had planned to do every day – and the plan every day was A, B, C, D."
As ever, luck played its part. Famously unfortunate – in 2005 he suffered three fractured collarbones from crashes, was injured again in 2008 and lost the Tour in 2010 after breaking his arm – on this occasion Evans has managed to stay clear of the pile-ups that plagued the first fortnight of the race.
But while he managed – finally – to put all the pieces of the Tour jigsaw in the right place, his victory has a largely transitional feel.
At 34 years and five months, Evans will be the oldest post-war winner of the race, and the third oldest in history after Firmin Lambot in 1922 and Henri Pelissier in 1923. A long reign at the top of the Tour hierarchy does not seem likely.
Waiting in the wings, Contador permitting, is 26-year-old Schleck, already second in 2009 and 2010, and whose brother Frank will join him on the final podium today – in the Tour's first podium with siblings.
The present, though, belongs to Evans, in tears as he remembered his longstanding trainer Aldo Sassi who died of a brain tumour this year, and to sports-mad Australia, where the prime minister is rumoured to be proposing a public holiday to celebrate Evans' victory.
And for the Australian, after years of underachieving – although a World Championship in 2009 briefly silenced his critics – and injuries have blighted his path, it is now virtually impossible for him to lose the Tour.
"The first time I took the yellow jersey in 2008, I'd been lying in a gutter after a bad crash the day before and I was in the middle of the Pyrenees. It didn't seem possible I was going to make it," Evans recalled.
"This time, though, we're a lot closer to Paris."
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