Cadel Evans’ new challenge this year is to get a double dose of Grand Tours, using his mountainbiking background as an aid. He finished fifth overall in the Giro d’Italia after winning stage seven on the “strade bianche”, the gravelled roads of Tuscany, and on Tuesday gained time over almost all the other GC contenders thanks to the pavé sections of the Tour de France's third stage.
The world champion is now the highest ranked of the favourites, laying in third place with thirty seconds advantage over Andy Schleck, 1.01 over Alberto Contador, 1.10 over Bradley Wiggins and 1.51 over Lance Armstrong. “This is a very good day for us”, said a jubilant BMC team owner Andy Rihs, whose passion for cycling was affected by the Floyd Landis drama in 2006 but is restored now by the exploits of the world champion.
“Even in my most pretentious plans, I couldn’t have imagined that I could gain so much time over adversaries like Contador and Armstrong”, Evans told L’Equipe after stage three to Arenberg. “I had put a mark on that day because I knew it could be chaotic. We prepared it well with the right material. We discussed a lot about technical details, choice of tyres and gears. We didn't make any mistakes.”
Evans had never ridden competitively on the cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix before. He reconnoitred the stages in April with his teammate Steve Morabito. “I knew where the traps were and also the profitable places for the best positioning”, Evans said.
Fränk Schleck's crash makes Evans to be the top beneficiary of the hectic day, but BMC team president Jim Ochowicz played it down, although he was obviously satisfied with the outcome of the stage. “We’re out of a rider too”, he told Cyclingnews. BMC lost Mathias Frank to a severe crash during the prologue in Rotterdam. The Swiss rider was supposed to be one of Evans’ right hand men in the mountains.
BMC's young team in formation doesn't offer the best climbing support to Evans, while Saxo Bank remains well armed for the climbs with Jakob Fuglsang and Chris Anker Sørensen. On the other hand, the line-up looked good for the cobblestones stage with the likes of Paris-Roubaix specialist George Hincapie and former Gent-Wevelgem winner Marcus Burghardt. But Evans rode successfully by himself in the heat of the action on the pavés.
“I kept in mind my bad prologue in Rotterdam (23rd) and I didn’t want to lose more time like in the team time trial of Montpellier last year”, Evans added. “I wanted to make up my deficit as quickly as possible. For once things turn out in my favour. I’m really happy. Psychologically, it’s good to be ahead but I don’t want to think about the future of this race for now.”
The popular success of stages like the strade bianche and the pavés will push the Grand Tours organisers to go for more stages like that. This could eventually make Evans a winner after all the disillusions he experienced in the past five years.