Tour de France winner: Cadel Evans's often-sullen ride to historic victory

Cadel Evans's victory marks the first time an Australian has won the Tour. Until now, Evans, a runner-up in 2007 and 2008, was known as one of the Tour's prickliest riders.

By , Correspondent

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    Cadel Evans of Australia celebrates on the Champs Elysees after winning the 98th Tour de France in Paris, Sunday. Evans became the first Australian to win the famed bicycle race.
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At times during his cycling career, Cadel Evans has been a sullen character.

In the 2008 Tour de France, the Australian threatened to cut a journalist’s head off for nearly stepping on his dog Molly; the same race, he head-butted a TV camera.

Today, however, Mr. Evans was anything but prickly. Smiling for television cameras and chatting amicably with vanquished rivals, he rode into Paris as a Tour de France champion for the first time.

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Sunday’s stage, won in a sprint finish by Briton Mark Cavendish, was largely processional. Evans, the Tour runner-up in 2007 and 2008, secured his win with a stunning performance in Saturday’s time trial, one that launched him into the yellow jersey and relegated the Luxemburger Andy Schleck to No. 2.

Standing on the podium next to Mr. Schleck and his brother, Fränk, the third-place finisher, Evans thanked the crowd for its support.

“I want to say thank you to everyone who had confidence in me,” said Evans, who rides for the American squad BMC. “It’s been a great race.”

At 34, Evans is the oldest Tour winner since Henri Pélissier in 1923; he’s also the first Australian to ever win the Tour.

Before Sunday’s stage, he received a call from Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who offered her congratulations, but stopped short of declaring his victory a national holiday.

“I'm not in a position to announce a public holiday for tomorrow, but I am in a position to share Cadel's view that ultimately we'll be more enthused about our daily tasks because we're celebrating his victory,” she said.

Road to victory

Evans’s path to his first-ever win was slow and steady. In the Tour’s first week, he won Stage 4 in uphill sprint finish. But it was one of the few bold moves he would make the rest of this 2,131-mile race, which started July 2 along France’s mid-Atlantic coast.

As other riders attacked, Evans bided his time during tough mountain stages in the Pyrénées and Alps, content to simply mark rivals Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador.

Mr. Contador, the three-time Tour winner, sought another title this year, but struggled to contend after a crash on the race’s opening day left him nearly a minute and half behind fellow contenders. He finished in fifth place, nearly 4 minutes behind Evans.

“The way [Evans] rode clearly wasn’t spectacular but he has always been there,” said Contador. “He deserves [this Tour win.]”

Caution almost cost him

Evans's cautious tactics almost backfired, though. He initially neglected to follow Andy Schleck’s breakaway up the Col du Galibier on Thursday’s Stage 18, before scrambling to catch up and stay in the race.

The next day’s stage, which took riders up the iconic Alpe d’Huez climb, Evans suffered a mechanical problem, but recovered to finish the day 57 seconds behind Schleck, who moved into the yellow jersey.

Schleck lasted just one day in the lead. During Saturday’s 26-mile individual time trial around Grenoble, Evans – considered a stronger rider than Schleck in the discipline – more than erased his time deficit.

Speeding along the course, Evans finished the day with a 1 minute and a half lead on Schleck. Receiving his yellow jersey on the podium afterward, Evans threw a bouquet of flowers into the crowd like an excited bride.

“I can’t quite believe it,” he said yesterday. “I’ve concentrated on winning this Tour for so long.”

String of misfortune

A former champion mountain biker, Evans turned his attention to road bikes in 2001.

He raced his first Tour de France in 2005 and two years later, finished runner-up to champion Alberto Contador. But misfortune followed. He wore the yellow jersey in 2008, only to lose it down the stretch to Spain’s Carlos Sastre.

Last year, with a new team, he took the race lead on Stage 8 but fractured his right elbow in the process.

Racked with pain, Evans lost his lead the following day. “I'm pretty sure it's all over for this year,” he said at the time. “I’m sorry to have let [my team] down.

Evans escaped serious injury in the myriad crashes that marred the beginning of this year’s race, which wound through the narrow, twisting roads of Brittany.

Some podium hopefuls, including American Chris Horner of Radio Shack, were forced to abandon the race after crashing.

Stage 9, in the Massif Central mountain range, brought the Tour’s worst carnage. Kazakhstan’s Alexandre Vinokourov fractured his femur during a slippery descent early in the stage; later that day, a French television car clipped the bike of Spain’s Juan Antonio Flecha. He fell to the ground and, in the process, knocked Holland’s Johnny Hoogerland into a barbed wire fence.

In years past, Evans has bemoaned his Tour de France finishes; this time, his rivals are left wondering what could have been. Perhaps no one is more disappointed than Andy Schleck, who has finished runner-up three straight years.

Having dispatched his nemesis Alberto Contador on Thursday’s Stage 18, Schleck felt confident about his chances to win.

But he struggled in Saturday’s time trial and on Sunday, stood second on the Champs-Élysées podium once again. “We would have wanted a Schleck to be another step higher on the podium, but we’re proud of what we’ve achieved” he said.

'Clean team' makes statement

A year after drug doping allegations put Contador's 2010 title in question, this year's race was not free for doping charges.

Indeed, in week 1, Russian Alexandr Kolobnev tested positive for hydrochlorothiazide, a diuretic often used to mask other drugs. He withdrew from the race and is expected to be fired by his team, Katusha.

While Contador tested positive for the banned drug clenbuterol during last year's Tour, the the Spanish cycling federation cleared him in February. It accepted his claim that the drug’s presence was a result of eating tainted beef.

But that decision has been appealed by cycling’s governing body, UCI, and Contador now awaits an August hearing at the Court of Arbitration for Sport. If the Spanish federation’s decision is overturned, Contador would be stripped of all his titles since — and including — last year’s Tour title.

Contador’s failed drug test, and his subsequent participation in this Tour, signals that there’s much work left to be done in cycling’s fight against doping.

But there are signs that the sport isn’t pedaling backward.

The success of American team Garmin-Cervélo, which has a zero-tolerance antidoping policy for its riders, in this year’s race has sent a positive message to the professional peloton. The self-proclaimed “clean team” had a banner Tour: winning four stages, including the team time trial, and capturing the overall team classification.

"I am confident that clean riders can win big races,” team founder Jonathan Vaughters said after the team’s time trial win on July 3. “We’ve showed [it's possible.]"

Grit and guts

Evans’s victory is being claimed as a win for clean cycling, too.

“It was done with true grit, a great deal of guts and a panache to prove to the world you can win the biggest race in the world while riding clean,” Australia’s Mike Turtur, a vice president for the UCI, told The Australian.

But the champion himself didn’t want to address the issue of doping in a press conference Saturday night, saying only that “the best thing I can do as an athlete is to give a good example.”

He preferred to look toward Sunday and his victory celebration.

Today, in the evening light of Paris, as other riders celebrated the Tour’s conclusion by drinking champagne and taking photos with family, Evans stood atop the podium.

He draped himself in the Australian flag and beamed as, for the first time in Tour history, his country’s national anthem echoed across the Champs-Élysées.

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