News feature, May 2, 2006
It's been a roller coaster of a month for Cadel Evans, the winner of the Tour de Romandie last weekend. He went from being told he may have developed a severely debilitating and career-ending condition through to posting a ProTour win with a storming final time trial. Cyclingnews' Gerard Knapp caught up with Evans as he enjoyed a short break in Trieste, Italy, with his wife, Chiara.
"Like I said last year, I have two goals [in 2006]; April and July. So when things didn't go well at Fleche and Liege, you could say I was concerned," admitted Evans.
The Australian climber had targeted the lumpier Spring Classics towards the end of April - Fleche-Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege - but under the stress of hard racing, he began to suffer from bad head-aches and actually lost vision in his left eye.
An early [mis] diagnosis initially indicated he may have been suffering from a debilitating condition called 'Hunter's Syndrome', but this later proved false. "At some point during training before Fleche, I got something in my eye, and it stayed there and it got aggravated when I had to race hard. I wasn't even aware of it until I was racing," he explained.
The loss of vision was not only disconcerting, "but it also made it a bit hard to follow the wheels in front of you and watch out for riders," added Evans. But after further treatment prior to the Tour de Romandie, he suffered no further problems and indeed, appeared to grow stronger as the race continued.
The monkey's out the back
A traditional pre-Giro d'Italia hit-out event, Romandie is a tough six-day race in the mountains of Switzerland. It also became a very good race for Evans' Belgian outfit, Davitamon-Lotto. It had not been enjoying its finest April on record, to put it diplomatically. But after Romandie, the team more than came out of the Quick Step shadow after it secured three stages and the overall race win.
In stage 1, Australian sprinter Robbie McEwen showed the kick was back in a bunch gallop, and then the following day, American Chris Horner rode a sensational stage to win alone in the first real mountainous stage.
It was then the turn of the Spaniards to take control of the race, with firstly Alberto Contador (Liberty-Seguros) winning the next stage and then all-round superstar Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears) bagging a win. Only six seconds separated the two young Spanish riders going into the final 20km time trial, with Evans trailing Valverde in third place, 24 seconds behind then GC leader Contador.
But it was the Australian who had more in the tank over the final TT and stormed home convincingly to finish 22 seconds ahead of Leif Hoste (Discovery Channel), while Contador was 51 seconds in arrears and Valverde over a minute slower than Evans.
Admittedly, Valverde had won both Fleche-Wallonne and LBL in the previous week, and was then second in the Romandie prologue sans-TT kit; he attacked the 3.4km heart-starter riding a standard road bike and his usual road racing helmet. He lost it by only 0.63 seconds to the sleek and aerodynamically-correct Discovery Channel rider, Paolo Savoldelli.
"Yes, we are well aware of that," Evans said of Valverde's ability. "I've been with him when he will ride up the front on the steepest climbs, and then the following day he can win the bunch sprints."
Did he believe TTs could be his weakness? "No, not really. I've seen him ride some very good time trials in the past."
Exorcising the ghost of a Giro passed
Evans' feat in winning the Tour de Romandie even sparked some interest in his home country, with his name now extended somewhat - perhaps to justify the inclusion of a story on an otherwise obscure Swiss stage race - to be 'Cadel-Evans-who's-considered- Australia's-best-chance-of-a-victory- in-the-Tour-de-France'.
"Well, that's good for Australian cycling, I suppose," was Evans' reaction when told his win had broken through the time limitations of the commercial network news half-hour bulletin and secured a whole five seconds (except the cycling-friendly SBS-TV, of course, which provided extensive reporting).
But ever since Evans secured the leader's jersey in the very hard 16th stage of the 2002 Giro d'Italia, his name has been mentioned as Australia's rider with the climbing ability to win France's big race. However, his time in the 'maglia rosa' of Giro race leader was short-lived - he blew up somewhat spectacularly the following day and learned a crucial lesson about preparation and pressure.
"I do think about that often," he said of that awful day on May 30, 2002. "I was aggressive that time in the Giro and I got into the leader's jersey. Then I had a bad day afterwards and you get this reputation as a rider who can't ride a three-week tour."
That notion was well and truly binned with Evans' exceptional third week of last year's Tour de France. Due to a training accident on May 13 where he broke his collarbone for the fourth time, he went into the 2005 TdF somewhat underdone, but finished strongly, even cheekily out-sprinting Lance Armstrong for 11th place in stage 18.
While Armstrong remained firmly in control, Evans stirred up the top 10 on GC and put other GC contenders under unexpected pressure. "I was still on my way up and I was just a little bit too late getting my form," he said.
A Giro spectator
This year, Evans said he'll be watching the Giro on TV from his lounge-room in Switzerland. "There's a couple of stages that are fairly close to home and I may drive over to see the boys, and take Robbie (McEwen) some Tim-Tams and Vegemite," he joked.
While not watching the Giro, Evans will be out on his bike, training for July's big event. Of the TdF contenders, Evans said, "it's still too early to say. There are two months and a lot of racing to come first". But one of the riders who has caught his attention is American Floyd Landis. "He has seemed to find another level this year, and he's looking strong - but will that last?"
Like many, Evans agreed that it seems the enigmatic German, Jan Ullrich, is using his participation in Italy's Grand Tour as training for the Tour, given his performance in Romandie where he was dropped in the mountains.
As for himself, Evans said he will race at Catalunya and the Tour de Suisse, as well as doing some reconnaissance of some unfamiliar climbs in this year's Tour de France.
"I will have a training camp in France and do some of the new climbs. I've only seen most of them on paper and for me, the hilltop finishes will be important."