The punishing final few hundred kilometres of the 2012 Tour de France have been painful to watch for followers of the 2011 champion Cadel Evans. The BMC rider has been struggling with illness over the closing days and has slipped down to seventh in the general classification ahead of tomorrow's final leg to Paris. On the eve of a stage that a year ago acted as a glorious coronation for the Australian, a gap of over fifteen minutes to race leader Bradley Wiggins would have seemed unthinkable a month ago.
Since illness struck ahead of stage 16's brutal Pyrenean mountain stage from Pau to Bagnères-de-Luchon, Evans has had the air of a battered boxer who fights on gamely with only his pride and competitive instincts stopping him from quitting on his stool. At times many who have watched him over the last few days have called for his cornermen to mercifully throw in the towel. There are no hiding places at the Tour.
To his eternal credit Evans hasn't looked for one. He has fought on to the end and it isn't just his team that have looked on in awe. His loyal band of Australian supporters, who have followed him to the other side of the world, were present at the BMC bus to greet him and offer their unconditional support as he returned from today's stage 19 time trial looking utterly spent.
Evans, who has consistently proved over the last decade that time trialling is one of his strengths, had suffered the ignominy of being passed by his young American teammate Tejay van Garderen with well over 20km to go. When Bradley Wiggins, Evans' anointed maillot jaune successor and the last man out today, crossed the line and took the stage win, the sums were quickly calculated. Evans had finished in 52nd position – a colossal six minutes behind Wiggins' winning time. And even more telling was another statistic: Evans is now almost five minutes behind another BMC rider, Van Garderen, in the overall general classification.
"It's support in the bad times that you need," an emotional Evans told reporters when the cheers from his Australian fans had died down.
"It's been an off year. I went into the Tour with high expectations and I've had to adjust to this and adjust to that. I went into today just hoping to preserve my position in the GC. I started the day on empty and I just rode the race within my limits with no regard to what was going on around me. I just want to finish this race and then look to my next objective, which at the moment is the London [Olympic] road race – so we'll see."
Asked by reporters whether he still had the competitive fire in his belly, his answer wasn't completely unequivocal. He also reflected on the contrast between the position he finds himself in now and the heady days of 12 months ago.
"I think in a couple of days it [the fire in his belly] will be there," he said. "It's not there right now. In a time trial when you look at the board and you're so far down it's not exactly a morale boost. I couldn't think of a more enormous contrast [between now and last year's Tour]. Last year was a lifetime dream come true and this year it's been a year's hard work that's not amounted to much, if anything at all."
Pressed on what went wrong for him, Evans stated that his team has plenty of improvements to make over the coming weeks and in the off-season, a process, he said, that has to start immediately. It was a strong indication that, aside from his own illness, all was not completely well in the BMC camp at this Tour.
"We have big improvements to make," he said. "Last year we were trying to anticipate what the other teams were doing, but now we're coming from behind and in some ways that's easier.
"I will go the Olympics but the team will look into things. There are so many aspects we can improve on, and that starts on Monday. Today I felt that everything I did was wrong but that's probably not the case. But I'll keep going and we'll be back next year. Right now I'm just starting off exhausted for whatever reason – and the first task is to find out about that.
"But hopefully I can recover well and come up good for the Olympic team. It's only a few days away but hopefully a couple of days off can do wonders."