An estimated 23,000 spectators lined the Australian National Road Race Championships' 10.1km course in Buninyong, just 12km southeast of Ballarat, Victoria to watch the greatest Australian field ever assembled, including former World Champion and Tour de France winner, Cadel Evans, race the 18-lap, 183.6km circuit.
Evans, the sole Team BMC rider on the start, and making his first trip back to Ballarat in nine years, downplayed his championship aspirations in the lead-up to the race. Evans told Cyclingnews he was "hopelessly outnumbered" by both Orica-GreenEdge and Drapac Pro Cycling. Nevertheless, the 2009 UCI World Champion overcame a wheel change on lap 16 and had a crack on the final climb up Buninyong Hill before sprinting to the finish behind now two-time champion Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) and rival Richie Porte (Sky).
"I have always been here on my own and never had a teammate," said Evans after finishing his fifth Road Nationals. "I feel as though everyone just wants to be in a break without me, or then in the final kilometres follow me. This was by far my best opportunity."
The 36-year-old Evans, who turns 37 in February, wanted to jump with 160 metres to go he did not have enough in the tank which was compounded by a slight gradient and noticeable headwind at at the finish line. "I left it a bit late but I just couldn't accelerate anymore, I exhausted myself too much early on," he said.
The former national XC MTB champion, was an odds-on fan favourite to win his first national road race jersey despite receiving some negative feedback after comments he made the day before in the Sydney Morning Herald on the value of the national title. The crowd was clearly pro-Cadel from the moment he signed in prior to the start.
"From the public, the crowd, the weather and the town, I say thank you," said Evans. "Most people seem to be happy to have me here. It is so nice to be welcomed by everyone. It was a fantastic experience."
In terms of the quality of the racing, Evans says the first race of the year is always difficult, and that it could play a factor by season's end.
"It was a little hard in January," he said. "When I line up at the world championships – if I line up at the world championships – at the end of the race they are going to be asking me probably what's the matter with me. It's a long season for us ahead. That side of things makes it a little difficult but the crowd and so on – the enthusiasm – it's a fantastic race."
Now Evans returns to Adelaide for the first time since 2010 to start his 2014 WorldTour racing program at the Tour Down Under before turning his attention toward his main objective – winning the Giro d'Italia.
"I really came here to get a good stepping stone into the Tour Down Under and of course on to the Giro," Evans concluded. "So to be there in the end with a chance for the win was really more than I had expected."