PARIS (AP) — Cadel Evans has been keeping fans back home up all night watching him become the first Australian to win the Tour de France. It’s a victory that’s been a long time coming.
Over the years, Evans has been better known for failing to live up to expectations than for overachieving.
He finished second in the 2007 Tour and was expected to win the next year, but was runner-up again. Last year, he was leading the race but crashed and fractured his left elbow. The pain was too much and he dropped out of contention in tears, ultimately finishing 50 minutes behind winner Alberto Contador.
This time, persistence, planning – and a little good luck – paid off.
“I hope I brought a great deal of joy to my countrymen, my country,” Evans said Sunday after climbing onto the winner’s podium on the Champs-Elysees. “It’s been a pleasure and an honor to fly the flag over here.”
The 34-year-old Evans, the oldest champion since before World War II, stood on the podium wrapped in his national flag, his eyes tearing up as he listened to the Australian national anthem. He then embraced Andy and Frank Schleck.
The brothers from Luxembourg had pushed him all the way to the end, but were finally defeated by his solo strength in Saturday’s race against the clock.
On the traditional Tour victory lap on Paris’ Champs-Elysees, champagne in hand, Evans seemed to stop to celebrate with just about every fan bearing an Australian flag.
As he clambered into his BMC team bus, hundreds of people shouted praise, one yelling, “Cadel, we love you!” and others chanting “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie – Oy, Oy, Oy!”
This was a very different Tour from the ones of the recent past that have been dominated by a single rider – Lance Armstrong or Contador. At least seven riders could have won it with only a few days remaining.
Contador, who is fighting a legal battle to hold on to last year’s victory after a positive drug test, faded away in the final stages and finished fifth.
On Sunday’s largely ceremonial ride to Paris, Contador smiled and chatted with Evans, even patting the Australian on the back. Afterward, the three-time Tour champion said he told Evans “he was the strongest rider, and it’s normal that he won.”
Evans’ final margin of victory over Andy Schleck was 1 minute, 34 seconds, but all of that was achieved in Saturday’s time trial. Evans hadn’t panicked when Andy Schleck had jumped ahead on the climb of the Galibier pass on Thursday and then took the overall lead in Friday’s last mountain stage.
Evans’ wife, Chiara, did. She was consumed with emotion – at times unable to bear the suspense when he needed to make up 57 seconds in the time trial to wrest the coveted yellow jersey from the younger Schleck brother.
“You don’t want to know. I was really, really bad. Crying and everything, and calling everyone ‘How many seconds?’ ” she said.
With his victory, she said, “I want to let the moment sink in. Cadel needs some rest. I need some rest too!”
He’s only the third non-European to win the Tour since it started in 1903. American Greg LeMond broke the European domination in 1986, with the first of his three wins, and his fellow American Lance Armstrong won seven straight beginning in 1999.
The Tour was also notable for the hard work of Thomas Voeckler, who defied all predictions to wear the yellow jersey as race leader for 10 days, delighting the victory-starved French, and for the success of British rider Mark Cavendish, who captured five stages – including Sunday’s final one – and won the green jersey of top sprinter.
In a race often marred in the past by doping allegations, only one rider has so far tested positive – Alexandr Kolobnev of Russia – although many of the doping tests done this year have yet to be analyzed. Contador’s positive test last year only came out after the race finished.
Evans has never faced doping allegations, and his longtime coach Aldo Sassi was known to be opposed to doping. Some have suggested that may be why until now he hasn’t been able to achieve his promise, though Evans won’t discuss that possibility.
“When you look at the race, it’s obvious that we don’t have the same feeling like in the past, when riders were sometimes supermen,” Michel Rieu, scientific adviser of the French anti-doping agency AFLD, told The Associated Press. “Most of the riders suffered a lot, you could see it on their faces, and they didn’t give the impression of riding scooters instead of bikes.”
When Evans crossed the line on Paris’ most famed avenue Sunday, he was catapulted to global stardom.
“I just want to say thank you to everyone who’s had faith in me,” Evans said atop the winner’s podium, with the famed Arc de Triomphe behind, the Schleck brothers at his sides and fans’ cheers erupting. “I couldn’t be happier than to be standing up right here in the middle.”
Evans took a call of congratulations from Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard after he secured the title Saturday. The pair joked about the economic consequences to Australia because Evans’ fans have been staying up to watch him race on the other side of the world.
“He suggested that it’d all be all right in the end because people would feel so full of morale that they’d be cantering into work and working harder,” said Gillard, who resisted suggestions that she should declare a public holiday to mark the victory.
Although Evans has a high profile in his home country, he is publicity-shy and even many Australians find him a bit of a mystery.
Evans has been trying to win the Tour since 2005, and many observers were wondering whether his time had passed. He was not considered one of the top favorites going into the race, but he soon showed his mettle.
Just last year, riding through the pain of the elbow fracture, he lost the yellow jersey and fell out of contention in Stage 9 in the Alps, when Schleck and Contador blew him away. Afterward, Evans broke down in tears, insisting he had let his team down.
This time, he rarely made his presence known, but won Stage 4 and kept close to the favorites in the mountains. With a small lead that he’d picked up in the early stages of the race and a lot of strength in time trialing, he knew that he didn’t need to attack in order to win.
Still, when Andy Schleck broke away from the field on the Galibier, observers thought Evans’ BMC team had made a crucial mistake. But Evans remained calm and used his time trial skill to overcome the Schlecks.
Andy Schleck – who has finished second in the Tour three straight times – was calm about the loss.
“Cadel was the best of the Tour and he deserved to win,” he said. “Second isn’t bad, and my brother was on the podium too. I’ll be back to win this Tour. We have a date for next year.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)