Cadel Evans Cyclist: In the world of professional cycling, the Tour de France is the equivalent of the ultimate game in any other sport you might care to mention.
As a test of human endurance, it really has very few equals. Competitors typically spend nearly every waking moment throughout the year in some form of preparation, much of which includes hour upon hour pedalling a bicycle in every type of weather, riding up hills that most people would find extremely difficult to ascend by walking, and then coming down those hills and around sharp curves at speeds that would induce an adrenaline overdose in most people. At any given time, the only thing standing betwixt the rider and disaster is a rubber tire approximately the width of the average thumb.
Add to the equation the fact that during most phases of stage races, such as the Tour de France, all this is going on scant centimetres away from a competitor doing his utmost to get to the finish line ahead of the others, where the slightest miscalculation results in a tangled heap of bodies and bicycles.
The first time the Tour de France was held was 1903. Only seven Australian cyclists have led in the general classification portion of the race, which is based on overall elapsed time. That leader is identified by the privilege of wearing the maillot jaune, or for those of us who speak a proper language, the yellow jersey. Prior to 1981, no Australian man had ever led the race for any period of time, a 78-year drought.
Contrary to what any of your mates down at the pub may have told you, it was not because all previous Australian cyclists had drowned attempting to ride their bikes to France, although when you consider what a cyclist goes through preparing and competing in the Tour, the concept does not seem entirely far-fetched.
Phil Anderson was the first, in 1981 and 1982. He held that distinction for just one stage the first year, but held it from stage two until stage eleven the following year. The most recent was in 2015, when Rohan Dennis won the first stage, and then immediately relinquished the yellow jersey in stage 2.
Stuart O’Grady wore the jersey for nine stages over the course of two Tours in 1998 and 2001. Bradley McGee (2003), Robbie McEwen (2004) and Simon Gerrans (2013) were the others. The top finisher of that group to date was Anderson in 1982, when he came in fifth, behind, amongst others, five-time winner Bernard Hinault.
The final man to wear the yellow jersey was our subject, Cadel “Cuddles” Evans. He held the jersey from stage 10 until stage 15 in 2008 before finishing second by under a minute to Spain’s Carlos Sastre. He had also run second the previous year, by a narrow 23 seconds to another Spaniard, Albert Contador, having never held the yellow jersey throughout the race. Evans held the lead for one stage in 2010, but ultimately was in 26th position, nearly an hour behind.
Cycling history in the Tour de France suggests that for general classification riders such as Cadel Evans, riders capable of doing well in the time trials, stage races, sprints, and climbing in the mountain stages, seizing the yellow jersey too early turns the rider into a target for the rest of the teams and riders in the peloton.
In the 2011 Tour, Evans did not take the lead until stage 20, an individual time trial where he took the jersey from Andy Schleck by a margin of one minute and 34 seconds, leaving only the 21st stage, a ceremonial ride into Paris along the Champ-Elysees for his victory parade, cementing his status as the greatest Australian cyclist of all time.
He managed the feat by being the best possible all-around rider. He won the fourth stage, a mostly flat test of endurance of 172 kilometres from Lorient to Mur-de-Bretange. He also managed to finish fourth in the King of the Mountains Classification, riding well enough in the brutal mountain stages to maintain contact with the climbing specialists. In terms of the points classification, he also finished fourth. Throughout the race, his biggest deficit was under three minutes.
In the Tour that year, as the General Classification, overall winner of the race, Cadel Evans won €450,000, equivalent to about $665,000 AUD, for the 86 hours he spent in the saddle expending super-human physical effort whilst trying to survive the unpredictable elements of weather, mechanical difficulties and other riders.
This does not take into account the thousands of hours he spent training under much the same conditions, or competing in other events, such as the Tour of Spain and the Tour of Italy. By contrast, with no disrespect intended, another Australian, Adam Scott, earned around $1.5 million for playing four rounds of golf at the 2013 Masters.
Evans is one of two non-European cyclists to win the Tour, the other being American Greg Lemond, who won it thrice. Another American, Lance Armstrong, won seven times, but eventually had his titles stripped away from him due to his admission of having used performance-enhancing drugs. Professional cycling is something of the poster child for that cause. Regardless of what anyone may think about the subject, it is an absolute certainty that Armstrong was not the only rider in any of the seven Tours he won who was chemically altered.
The truth of the matter is that any of the riders who were not were the exception, rather than the rule. We are not big fans of Lance Armstrong, but the hypocrisy in stripping him of his titles left a stain on the sport of cycling that may perhaps never be removed.
Cadel Evans retired from racing on 1 February 2015, after competing in a one-day road race that started and finished in Geelong named in his honour.
If asked, he would credit some of his success to his career as a mountain biker, where he won the World Cup in 1998 and 1999. He took part in the men’s cross-country event in the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympics, and he took part in three other Olympic Games. Along with his Tour de France win, he also won the 2010 Giro d’Italia, along with eight other professional stage races.