Australian cyclist Cadel Evan. AAP Images

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I know he isn’t everybody’s favourite, and he has a gift for saying unfortunate things in an unfortunate way, but I like Cadel Evans, and I’ll tell you why.

In Bernard Hinault’s glory years, when he won the Tour de France five times and just about everything else going, a non-cycling journalist asked him what it took to be a great cycling champion. Hinault pulled out the front of his shorts, pointed downwards and said “A big pair of these.”

Well, Cadel Evans is just about the ballsiest bike racer around today, I reckon.

He’s very different to your standard pro. They tend to be a bit brash, a bit street smart, into cars and computer games, at least on the surface they are. But Cadel Evans doesn’t have that chippy shell. Instead he has huge amounts of inner strength, plus a bucket full of bike racing class.

I first met him in 2005 when he was in his first year with the Belgian team, Davitamon-Lotto, and was under the wing of their Australian directeur sportif, Alan Peiper. They were kindred spirits.

Peiper is deep too. He feels things that other people shrug off. It affected his pro career, which unfortunately was back in the days when it wasn’t done to talk about your feelings, at least not in pro sport.

Evans had been with the Telekom team, where he’d had crashes and broken bones, but they didn’t understand him at all. They just consigned him to the weird box, and hardly let him race.

Evans was down on his luck, damaged goods in many ways, which is another reason why Peiper had sympathy with him, but he also wondered if the Australian contingent in Davitamon-Lotto might break Evans.

“I shouldn’t have worried. Nick Gates and Henk Vogels are ‘tough as nails’ characters but they took Cadel under their wing, they saw something in him, and they helped me deal with Cadel too. Nick just told me not to tread on eggshells with Cadel and just give him a mouthful of what to do, and it helped,” Peiper said at the time.

Evans can appear eccentric and complicated, but that’s only when he’s under the stress of racing. He can’t switch it off like others do, which means he doesn’t handle post-race interviews very well at all. That’s when the the crazy stuff can come out. Get him on his own, get him relaxed and a careful, caring, intelligent and interesting person emerges.

But there are plenty of nice guys in cycling, so let’s get on to why I really admire Cadel Evans.

Firstly, I like the way he kept his focus and kept improving year on year when many of those beating him were doping. Not all of them, but the failed drugs tests and suspensions prove who was.

In all that time not a speck of suspicion fell on Evans. He should have been angry, and privately he was, but he knew the score. Some might say he should have spoken out, and I tried to get him to in 2006, but it wasn’t the right time. He speaks out now.

Then there’s the way he races. Evans is a rock that the others break themselves on. That’s how we won the world title in 2009. The other favourites snookered each other and were exhausted by the final lap, which was when Evans shifted gear in his diesel engine body and cleared off up the road.

He’s just as effective in defence.

Remember that stage when Andy Schleck tried to win last year’s Tour, the one that finished on top of the Galibier?

Schleck’s team gave a strategic master-class, they had Evans isolated, but he just hunkered down in a gritty, dour pursuit and saved the race. He did it again on Alpe d’Huez next day. He let the race smash up against him then washed them away in the final time trial.

Evans is an honest racer who’s tactically easy to predict but not easy to beat, especially now he has perfected his timing.

This year Bradley Wiggins stands the best chance of winning the Tour de France he’s ever had or ever will have. He’s the best he’ll ever be, the route suits him perfectly and Contador’s leg-breaking attacks won’t be a factor in the mountains.
Andy Schleck’s attacks will hurt Wiggins but Schleck can’t time trial.

However, there’s one big thing that could sink the Good Ship Wiggo, and that’s a rock called Cadel Evans.

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