Tomorrow afternoon, Cadel Evans should be crowned winner of the 2011 Tour de France following one of the most extraordinary of the race’s 98 editions.
The margin of the Australian’s victory, 1 minute 34 seconds assuming he crosses the line with the same time as Andy Schleck on tomorrow’s stage, is nothing remarkable – indeed, Evans himself has twice finished runner-up by a narrower gap.
His victory will come, however, after a thrilling closing week to what has been a memorable race, with three different men wearing the maillot jaune on the final three days – the first time that has ever happened.
Going into the final week of this year’s Tour, there were still perhaps half a dozen men with a realistic chance of winning the overall title.
However, as Thomas Voeckler grimly tried to cling on to the maillot jaune as first Schleck then defending champion Alberto Contador, the latter having already drifted out of real contention, attacked in the Alps, it was Evans who emerged as favourite to win.
Upon receiving the maillot jaune today after finishing second today to HTC-Highroad’s Tony Martin, Evans’ first thought was for his former coach who had died from a brain tumour last December.
“Aldo Sassi said to me last year, ‘Now you’ve won the world championship, you’ve made yourself a complete rider but you can win a Grand Tour and I hope for you it’s the Tour de France.’
“It was he who believed in me from 2001 and he never doubted my abilities he never gave up with me and he worked through good and bad,” he added.
While Andy Schleck was attacking on the way to the Galibier on Thursday, it was Evans who had to put in the work at the front of the GC group to ensure that the Leopard Trek rider’s advantage was kept in check.
Yesterday, when a mechanical problem saw Evans distanced by Contador and Schleck on the Telegraph, again the Australian didn’t panic, instead gradually chipping away at their advantage and catching them ahead of the final climb to Alpe d’Huez.
In short, Schleck needed a lot more time if he were to survive today’s individual time trial in Grenoble. He didn’t get it, and needed Evans to hit some kind of problem on the 42.5 kilometre course. It didn’t happen.
“I’ve had some bad moments in the last 10 years but that just makes the good moments even better,” reflected Evans, who had finished second to Contador in 2007 and to Carlos Sastre 12 months later.
Refelecting on the final time trials in those Tours, Evans said: “In 2007, Contador had a particularly good day that day. I had an average day. I think I was seventh or eighth... I didn’t have a bad day.
“In 2008 I was injured, I was exhausted I was on my limit absolutely every day. Just getting in to bed or having a shower was so fatiguing and stressful.
“Physically and emotionally it was just so difficult but then you’ve got to go to a time trial and any weakness you have really shows up. That’s when everyone was saying, ‘For sure, you’re going to win...’ but I pulled up short. That was still the hardest Tour I ever rode in my life.
“Today I just went through the processes like we do every day. We have a plan and today it was ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’ and ‘D’ and we followed the plan, did the best we could and we came up a few seconds short for the stage [win] but I’ll look back at it in time and, when I’ve got time to reflect on it, I’ll enjoy it I’m sure.
“It’s been a bit of a strange race,” conceded Evans. “In the mountains there wasn’t a definitive strong team... but we did everything right each step of the way. Everyone in my team, every step of the way, we did everything we could to put me in the right position today.
As for his victory, he said: “I can’t quite believe it all quite now. My thanks go to everyone who played a part in today – we’re talking 20 years of work has been put into this performance.
“There has been a lot of great work put in by people behind me – some are still with us and some are not any more – but I hope the sun is shining tomorrow on the Champs-Elysées and we to the finish without any problems.”
Should he do so, Evans will become, at 34 years of age, the oldest post-war winner of the Tour de France and the third-oldest in the race’s 108-year history. He’ll also be the first Australian – indeed, the first man from the Southern Hemisphere – to win the world’s most famous bike race.
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.