After finishing second at the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré, Cadel Evans has regained his confidence for the Tour de France. In an exclusive interview with Cyclingnews’ Jean-François Quénet, Evans explains why he has good reasons to believe that Alberto Contador is beatable in July.
Back in March Cadel Evans had some serious doubts. He wasn’t in form after a hectic off-season and controversies inside his Silence-Lotto team. It had also taken him a lot longer than expected to recover from his shoulder and knee injuries sustained in the Tour de France. However his morale took the biggest knock when Alberto Contador put in a superb performance in the time trial in Paris-Nice, with the Spaniard beating Evans by 31 seconds on a 9km flat course. It shocked everyone, but especially Evans.
"I’m really impressed seeing such a small guy going so fast on this kind of course," the Australian said at the time. Since losing the 2007 Tour to Contador, Evans was aware that time trialling was his best chance of beating the Spanish climber. But now the Spaniard was beating him in his own backyard. That wasn’t all Evans had to worry about. Astana’s super power, with the recruitment of Lance Armstrong and the signings of two former Silence-Lotto lieutenants in Chris Horner and Yaroslav Popovych, meant that the Kazakh team were threatening to run away with any race they wanted. "If Astana shows the same form as in the early part of the season, it will be very difficult to beat them," Evans said in March.
It’s easy for anybody on a couch to wonder ‘why doesn’t this guy attack?’ but sometimes on the bike there’s not a great deal you can do - Evans on last year's Tour.
Evans and the Silence fight back
Fast forward to a strong performance in the Dauphiné and Evans is a calmer man. There’s no doubt he’s more relaxed and reassured. He can now beat Contador in time trials - he did it in Nancy and Valence - and his new team-mates at Silence-Lotto have given him very encouraging signs of competitiveness, signs they weren’t showing earlier in year. Evans now feels that they have the ability to challenge Astana, although the Kazakh-based team will line-up with the crème de la crème of cycling super stars in Monaco.
"The day after Paris-Nice, I went and rode the Monaco time trial. It will be a big spectacle. There is a beautiful view and everything about that stage will be special. But from day one there will be a big selection among the favourites. I like that in a course."
The Australian isn’t a fan of reconnoitring all the stages a month preceding the Tour. After the Dauphiné, he packed his bag and went to a quiet but efficient training camp in Sierra Nevada, Spain. "I’ve already raced all the top finishes of the Tour de France, I know them," he says. "It’s said some of the mountain stages are not as hard as usual but the race is always hard. There are big expectations for the Mont Ventoux but the race might not go down to the wire. They say the mountains are not as selective but that’s all speculation. This year’s Tour looks like a nice race, that’s all I know."
The break he was finally able to take after the Tour of Romandie - a race he didn’t want to take part in but was obliged to after Lotto suffered a number of injuries - allowed him to watch the Giro d’Italia from his couch. "The long time trial was different and interesting. It was one of my favourite stages because the riders used normal bikes. I’m a cycling purist. Lance Armstrong? He didn’t start at the level people in Italy expected. I’ve been in the same situation in terms of coming back from a broken collarbone, so I know how it goes. He improved his condition during the race, and it will be interesting to see what he can do at the Tour de France. I wouldn’t count him out."
Although Armstrong didn’t win the Giro or Astana take home the honours at the Dauphine, Evans still sees them as the team to beat at the Tour de France. "They have the numbers," says Evans. "On paper it’s the strongest team in the history of the Tour de France."
In theory, Silence-Lotto looks like a Mickey Mouse team compared to Astana but the Dauphiné has given Evans and his men some good reasons to be confident. During the queen stage, that comprised of the Galibier, the col de la Croix-de-fer and the Madeleine, Evans was the only one of the trio of the stars to have domestiques helping him in the final climb, in the form of Matthew Lloyd and Jurgen Van den Broeck. Alejandro Valverde and Contador, on the other hand, were left alone. If the two Spaniards hadn’t combined their efforts, Evans would have been in serious contention for the overall win.
However despite the growing confidence Evans and his team have displayed of late, he admits that the team’s poor start did affect him. This might be a Flemish team, but the only four wins this year have come from Walloon (Olivier Kaisen at the Presidential Tour of Turkey and Philippe Gilbert at the Giro d’Italia) and Australian riders (Evans himself at the Settimana Coppi e Bartali and at the Dauphiné). "We’ve been unlucky with crashes and injuries, that’s all. For the Tour, my new team-mates look very good. Thomas Dekker showed at the Tour of Belgium that he’s back to his best. Charly Wegelius is a real team player, and he has the experience to contribute to the team. Van den Broeck fits in perfectly and has improved his climbing. Sebastian Lang is the real surprise and I couldn’t ask for a better helper, I’m very happy to have him."
Evans will also count on his ‘little brother’ and fellow compatriot Mathew Lloyd, who could be a great help in the mountains. But he knows the missing link is someone who can accompany him to the top of the biggest climbs. "Bernhard Kohl was a good recruit for that," he says. "When we hired him I thought it was too good to be true, that the king of the mountains who was on the podium last year had come to help me, but in the end we realized that it was too good to be true. When it [Kohl's positive for CERA, ed] occurred, it was too late to find a replacement in November."
Evans goes on the attack
Not only does Evans have better support than last year, when Popovych failed in his role as a domestique at Silence-Lotto, but the Australian has also proven at the Dauphiné more determination and fighting spirit. It’s a different scenario to previous years when he was criticised for having a cautious attitude in the crucial moments.
"As a rider I’m quite aggressive," he says in his defence. "Last year against three CSC riders (Carlos Sastre and the Schleck brothers) and suffering from my crash in the Pyrénées, there was nothing more I could do in the Alps. It’s easy for anybody on a couch to wonder ‘why doesn’t this guy attack?’ but sometimes on the bike there’s not a great deal you can do."
"My job is to do the best I can at the Tour de France, I’m not there to create spectacle. Astana seems to not want to give me much rope in major races and I take it as a compliment. It means they think Contador is beatable. I also think he is. I expected more from him at the Dauphiné. Now at the Tour I’ll have to be consistent, be there every day and not lose too much time in the team time trial."
The main reason for Evans’ self belief comes from his new status: he’s no longer the hot favourite for the Tour de France but just one of the challengers. He looks more relaxed than one year ago and it comes across with everything he says. "Being a favourite changes a lot in your personal life. Last year, until February 13, I was one of the Tour de France contenders. On February 14, I became ‘the’ Tour favourite because of the exclusion of Astana. The interview requests were enormous then. I could have answered questions six to seven hours a day. I accepted too many interviews and I wasn’t full of energy to meet all the requirements. Now I say no to more than most of the media requests. I remember something my first coach once said: ‘You can’t keep everybody happy all the time and it’s dangerous if you do.’ Since the Tour of Romandie, I’ve been left to my own plans and it looks good for the Tour. I look after myself and I know what I need to get ready. Winning the Tour de France means weeks and months of planning."
Evans talks only about winning, not about coming second for the third time in a row.