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Cadel Evans (BMC) speaks at the team presentation in Nazareth
Australian confident he has recovered from virus
In cycling, as in politics, few stories stir passions like a leadership contest. But while the dynamics of power at Team Sky are sure to be parsed and analysed with the intensity of a presidential primary between now and July, Cadel Evans stressed that there would be no such doubts as to the hierarchy of his BMC squad at the 2013 Tour de France.
Speaking at the BMC team presentation in Nazareth, Belgium on Friday, Evans said that he expected to be the sole leader at the Tour, while last year's best young rider Tejay van Garderen would again play a supporting role. Van Garderen finished the Tour two places ahead of Evans in 5th, but even though his 36th birthday is fast approaching, Evans is adamant that he can put the health problems that blighted his 2012 campaign behind him.
"I think if I return to my normal level, it's pretty clear what the team needs to focus on and what we need to focus on: that will be one leader, and that will be me because I have the experience and the results to back up that I can win the Tour," Evans said. "For 2013, for Tejay and myself, it's important that we are honest and clear with each other. The most important for me is to get back to my good level and if that happens, the rest is obvious."
BMC manager John Lelangue revealed that, as in 2012, Evans and van Garderen would ride largely separate race programmes ahead of the Tour, with the Critérium International their only joint appearance. Evans will line up at Tirreno-Adriatico, the Tour de Romandie and Critérium du Dauphiné, while his stable mate will ride Paris-Nice, the Tour of California and Tour de Suisse.
"I don't know what races Tejay is riding. I understand he rides the Tour but for the rest, I don't know," Evans said cagily. "And as I see it, with me at my best, it's pretty clear who we would ride for."
Van Garderen later moved to downplay talk of taking the mantle of leadership for himself, carefully agreeing that Evans is the man in possession. "But I think I'll be given a bit of a free role: if Cadel's leader, it doesn't mean that I still can't get a result," he said.
For now, of course, Evans' primary concern is not a battle for the reins of his team but rather for full command of his own physical powers. Asked if he had pinpointed the issues behind his heavy-legged Tour showing, Evans said that it had been caused by a virus that he believes he picked up last winter when he travelled to Ethiopia to meet his adopted son.
"It seems that when I went to Ethiopia, I contracted some kind of low-level virus and we didn't find out about that until August," said Evans, who ended his 2012 season early in order to aid his recovery. "The first thing for me is to come back healthy and from what we can tell everything is coming back to normal. The most important thing in your life is your health and of course you start to realise that when you don't have it."
In spite of his illness, the stricken Evans had a close-up view of Team Sky's startling collective dominance at the Tour. While the expression "marginal gains" has passed into the cycling lexicon as a byword for innovation, Evans was unsure if their approach was especially revolutionary.
"There aren't a whole lot of new things they are doing, although I'm sure there are new things they're doing that they're not telling us about, although we also have our little secrets and performance gains that we make that we don't tell everyone about as well," Evans said.
"The thing that impressed me most about Brad Wiggins' season was how he stayed at a high level from Paris-Nice to the Olympic Games. To hold that high, high level was to me bordering on what I thought was impossible. But obviously he's gone and done it so it's clearly not impossible. Let's see how they back up again from that this year. We'll see. That was 2012, this is 2013."
As Evans told reporters with mock weariness but more than a hint of pride, he is facing into his 19th professional season in 2013 - a campaign which is likely to begin "at the Tour of Oman or the races in Italy" - but he quashed any speculation that he was giving serious consideration to hanging up his wheels in the next two years.
"Everyone is always asking me when I'm going to stop and 'I don't know' doesn't stand for an answer, so you have to make something up," he quipped. "I love what I do and I have a great environment here at the team. If I stopped at the end of 2013, I'd feel I was cutting myself short but that's easy to say at this point."