Davitamon-Lotto's Aussie gamble

An interview with Cadel Evans, December 8, 2004

Can Cadel be a Tour contender?

Sporting a new name and a new team roster, the Belgian based Davitamon-Lotto team (formerly Lotto-Domo) will enter 2005 with a distinctly Australian flavour. Best known as the team of two-time Tour de France green jersey winner Robbie McEwen, the return of his lead-out man Nick Gates and the addition of recovering classics rider Henk Vogels will ensure Vegemite croissants are added to the menu wherever the team goes.

But in the land Down Under, the coffee table conversation is all about Cadel Evans, the former mountain bike World Cup champion who has joined Davitamon-Lotto after two challenging, injury-interrupted years with T-Mobile. Cyclingnews' John Flynn caught up with the him and the rest of the Aussie Davitamon-Lotto contingent at Brisbane's South Bank, and ponders the question: can Cadel contend in July?

Since crossing over to road full-time in 2002 when he joined Mapei-Quick Step, Evans has shown plenty of promise as a stage racer, wearing the maglia rosa at the Giro and more recently in June this year, winning his second Tour of Austria. Along the way, the determined Australian has made no secret of his dream to ride the Tour de France, but injuries and team politics have so far kept his major career objective on ice.

While his new contract doesn't take effect until after Christmas, Cadel joined Davitamon-Lotto's Australian-based riders in south-east Queensland this week to race the Grand Prix Criterium Series and do some serious miles in training.

Cadel's arrival

Looking back it seems a lifetime ago!

The year in fact was 1994 and beneath the rainforest canopy of far north Queensland's wet tropics, 17 year-old Australian Cadel Evans was about to burst onto the international cycling scene.

The event was historic in itself, with Cairns hosting Australia's first mountain bike World Cup cross country race, but even more significant was the performance of the kid from country Victoria, who stepped up a few weight divisions from the junior ranks to race against a field of international superstars.

Dutchman Bart Brentjens would win the day, but it was the softly spoken Aussie underdog who stole the limelight as larger-than-life UCI announcer Peter Graves reached for superlatives to describe his fifth place performance against a world-class field. For those in the know, it was no great surprise. The slightly built kid with the frog legs could climb and on a circuit boasting killer hills like the famous 'Red Ringer', only the very best endurance riders would survive an event of World Cup distance.

The message was there for all to see... Cadel Evans had arrived!

Soon the mountain bike prodigy would be taken under the wing of the (now defunct) AIS mountain bike program, and with the help of coach Damian Grundy, would leave his mark on the sport, along the way twice claiming the World Cup cross country series crown.(1998 and& 1999).

10 years on and with a decade of international experience off and on road under his belt, it's a more street-wise Evans who is considering his greatest, yet-to-be-fulfilled career challenge, of riding the Tour de France.

It's a goal he might have already achieved, but for a 2003 season punctuated by broken collarbones (five to the left collarbone at last count) and a 2004 campaign which saw the 27 year-old win the Tour of Austria for the second time (he first won it with Saeco Cannondale in 2001), only to be overlooked for selection in T-Mobile's Tour de France line-up.

"I had a bit of bad luck last year and these things happen in everyone's career," Evans laments while kitting up for his second-last race in the pink T-Mobile colours. "It's up to me to get back to work and get back into the swing of things to get it behind me and, yep, start winning again."

At the very least, the move to Davitamon-Lotto will bring a significant change of scenery for the Australian who, it's fair to say, won't be leaving the German team on the best of terms. Evans made no secret of his surprise at being left out of the T-Mobile's Tour de France line-up, especially following his winning form at the Tour of Austria. Many of the Australian's supporters questioned the logic in the decision, given the help Cadel could have given Jan Ullrich in the mountains, not to mention his track record as a time triallist, which would have been more than handy pegging back time from U.S. Postal in the TTT.

More recently, he's adopted a 'just get on with it' frame of mind after signing a new contract, with the specific intention of riding La Grande Boucle.

"People need to remember it's my first Tour, don't expect too much my first time out please," Cadel pleads. "But yeah, with a new team, new goals, good people to work with, I'm looking forward to a good year too."

Evans has signed on as Lotto's only 'specialist' G.C. rider, a role he admits carries significant responsibility, but responsibility he's nonetheless eager to take on.

With four Australians on the roster (five including directeur-sportif Allan Peiper), Evans is hoping to feel more at home with the Belgian team. As one T-Mobile insider carefully described, Cadel "just didn't fit into the culture of Telekom", and while the question remains as to how things will go with him new team, the eclectic mix of Aussie personalities, will, according to new team-mate Henk Vogels, make for an interesting year ahead.

"It'll be an interesting mix with Nick Gates and Cadel Evans together, sort of bit of a funny dynamic," Vogels pondered as Lotto's Aussie connection came together for the first time at the weekend. "But it'll be great for Cadel to be in a team like this, feel a bit more at home than he has in the last five or six years."

The Tour dream

July may still be a long way off, yet it was no surprise to find Cadel Evans eager to talk about the Tour de France this week, when he returned to racing after a brief post-season rest.

Like most Australians, Cadel is well aware his country is yet to produce a genuine G.C. contender in cycling's showcase event since Phil Anderson and while the recent successes of Robbie McEwen, Baden Cooke, Brad McGee and Stuart O'Grady have lifted the profile of cycling Down Under, it's Evans who, along with perhaps Michael Rogers, that carries the 'man most likely' tag among his home country's cycling faithful.

Robbie McEwen, who has been in 'laid back' mode after enjoying a holiday at home with his family on Queensland's Gold Coast, turned rather serious when asked about Cadel's Tour prospects. It's a realisation perhaps, Lotto's new rider, a 'pure climber', could turn on something special in the mountains.

"Cadel is your typical general classification rider, a very good climber and that's what his role will be in the team, to ride for the overall classification in the big stage races," McEwen affirms with a very definite tone of voice. "For Cadel this year for the Tour de France, it's reasonable to expect that he could finish in the top ten and then in a number of other Pro Tour events, he could be wrapping up a few podiums in the overall classifications."

Whether Davitamon-Lotto has the cattle to support Evans in a race as long as the Tour remains to be seen. With much of the team's focus sure to be on Robbie McEwen's campaign for a third green jersey, Evans believes the pressure will be off his 'troublesome' shoulders.

"Mario Aerts will be the guy to help me; he's come from T-Mobile with me and he's happy to be back in Belgium," Evans says while discussing the team roster. "I'm happy to be there with him, so he'll be my main man to help me out."

There is also plenty of experience on Davitamon-Lotto's team roster, with the likes of Axel Merckx, Tom Steels and Freddie Rodriguez just to name a few, likely to take some of the pressure off the young Australian. New team-mate Nick Gates is confident it'll be a bonus for Evans not to be carrying the expectations of the entire team as he settles into a role with Davitamon-Lotto, which could, over time, develop into one of a genuine team leader.

"It's a good opportunity for him, where he can be the man and ride for himself, not have any pressure of riding for someone else, like a Jan Ulrich or someone else in the team," Gates says. "Three years ago, he had the pink jersey in the Giro until two days to go, that's not a fluke, he can do it again."

Cofidis rider Matt White, who like Evans knows the heartache of missing out on the Tour, sees things a little differently. Back home to compete alongside his fellow Australians in the Grand Prix Criterium series in Queensland, White, who spent several years at U.S. Postal under Lance Armstrong, was up front when asked what Cadel would need to do to contend in the big races.

"I've worked with the best leaders in the world," White recalls. "To be a leader you've gotta lead by example and you've gotta create an atmosphere in the team that people want to work for you."

Evans admits he's not ready for that specific a role just yet. The 2005 Tour will be very much a wait-and-see affair, where his primary objective will be to secure a stage win or two, if the cards fall his way. He's already studied the 2005 Tour parcours on the Internet, but isn't about to make any bold predictions, let alone get overly demanding with his team-mates.

"Being my first Tour, I don't want to say to them, 'Hey come and ride for me,'" Evans admits modestly. "Its my first Tour and its going to be a big learning experience."

In the meantime, there is race two of the Grand Prix Criterium Series on Queensland's Gold Coast to look forward to, one of the rare opportunities for European-based riders to race in front of an adoring Australian public. Many eyes are sure to be firmly fixed on Cadel Evans, hoping he stays upright and out of trouble long enough to take his rightful place on the starting line of the 2005 Tour de France.

"I'll be at Tour Down Under, but I don't expect to be riding well until I go over to Europe, Paris-Nice and the early season stage races," Evans reveals of his immediate plans. "For the start its just getting back into the swing of things ... July is always the big thing on my mind."

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