In the small hours of a cold July night way back in 2011, Australians sat huddled around their lounge room heaters watching events from a bike race on the other side of the world unfold in front of them.
A rider in a tight red and black jersey was hunched over his bike.
You could almost see the wake left in the air behind the point of his aero helmet as, with forearms resting across the top of his time trial bars, his legs pumped with unfailing strength toward cycling immortality.
Cadel Evans hadn’t won the race yet, but it wouldn’t be long.
In darkened lounge rooms across the country we watched as the time gap between Evans and incumbent leader Andy Schleck began to tumble.
We whooped with delight as the time gap reversed, indicating that our boy – our Cadel – was now leading the Tour de France.
Some of us even cried.
“The greatest Australian sporting victory since Australia II won the America’s Cup,” shouted the headlines after Evans rode into Paris a day later.
“The greatest Australian sporting victory ever!” screamed others.
Posters and double paged spreads appeared in newspapers. Highlights of the great race were being shown on mainstream television and headlining the news bulletins. Radio was awash with sound bites and tributes. Tens of thousands of people welcomed Evans home in a celebration of spirit that was televised live from Melbourne’s Federation Square.
Our Cadel. Our hero.
Fast forward a year and the same adoring media (and fans) began to turn. Evans had struggled with illness leading up to the 2012 Tour but still battled on. He finished seventh over all, a fair effort for a sick and ailing 35-year-old, but his success of the year before had clouded our judgement and nothing less than a repeat of his 2011 form would suffice.
Fast forward another year and throw in a loss of time on an early climb at the 2013 Tour and you now have the words ‘Cadel Evans’ and ‘failure’ appearing in the same sentence. Think about that for a moment. Cadel Evans, failure.
If Cadel Evans is a failure then I’ll take his kind of non-achievement any time!
Let’s look at this objectively.
Before last night’s Mont Ventoux stage, Evans was sitting 13th on general classification, 6:54 behind race leader Chris Froome. He is barely one minute outside the top ten and a whopping 25:32 ahead of BMC’s other great GC hope, Tejay van Garderen.
That’s not bad for a 36-year-old with little team support nearing the end of his career.
We tend to forget that Evans is now the same age as the oldest ever winner of the Tour – Firmin Lambot. Lambot won the Tour way back in 1922, which proves that Le Tour is not in the habit of giving itself to old men!
To use football parlance, Evans’ premiership window has closed. In all honesty, he was probably at the very end of that window when he won the Tour back in 2011. Even then, at 34, he was the oldest winner since the courageous Italian Gino Bartoli in 1948.
Of course, that shouldn’t stop him going into races thinking he is going to win. That’s what all good sportsmen and women do. They believe in themselves and often that self belief remains long after the athlete has passed his or her peak.
But just as a football team coming off a dominant era will still pull off the occasional stellar victory to remind us of how they used to be, so to do our ageing cyclists.
Evans’ performance at the Giro d’Italia was one such example.
But to accuse him of giving us false hope for the Tour by delivering such a performance in Italy is pure folly.
Evans has paid his dues. He has battled hard in an era of suspicion and remained a shining light for clean cycling. His consecutive second places at the Tour in 2007 and 2008 may have been wins under cleaner circumstances. Indeed his top ten placings in 2005 and 2006 may also have been higher given a cleaner peloton.
Injury, bad luck and a lack of team support cost him dearly throughout 2009 and 2010 before he broke through for his much-longed-for victory in 2011.
Evans was a late starter to road racing, coming across to the discipline from mountain biking. He was already 28 years of age when he raced his first Tour. Even so, he has had a long stint at the top of the sport and deserves respect.
After two weeks of racing in one of the world’s most unforgiving bike races, 13th place and a deficit of just 6:54 seems just about right for a 36-year-old with no team support. It definitely isn’t a failure.