It has been four years since former UCI Road World Champion and Tour de France winner, Cadel Evans, rolled up to the start line at the Tour Down Under. On Sunday, during the People's Choice Classic criterium, Evans will mark his return to Adelaide among the throngs of cycling aficionados all on hand in Adelaide to yell for Cadel once more even after recent comments made in the Sydney Morning Herald sparked debate over the value of the Australian National Road Race Championships.
Fresh off a sensational second-place finish behind now two-time winner Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) and ahead of soon-to-be Giro d'Italia archrival Richie Porte (Sky) at the Australian Road Nationals in Ballarat last week, Evans has shown spectacular early season form that could see the Team BMC road captain as a major contender for the ochre jersey.
"My job is to be at the biggest and best bike races in the world and do the best that I can at them," Evans said. "That has always been my focus especially in the last 10 years. I am happy to be back racing and my international program this year allows me to be here. It's a WorldTour race and it's in Australia, and I would love to get the team off to a good start and that's the main thing."
Pending a late afternoon decision on Monday on whether or not to proceed with the opening stage due to an outbreak of bushfires, the peloton will race 135km from Nuriootpa to Angaston with the climb up Menglers Hill set to cause a selection before a potential sprint to the finish.
Riders will have a chance to capture King of the Mountain points at Menglers Hill (near Angaston) in the Barossa Valley and two sprint points at Bethany along the way. Evans feels that this could be one of the more selective opening stages of the Tour Down Under in recent history and believes that while no one will win the overall title on the day, names could most definitely drop out of contention.
"It is certainly hillier than all the Tour Down Under's that I have done before and hopefully better for me," said the former two-time MTB World Cup champion. "It is fairly tough in the early season and I see a lot guys that are fit and very motivated. I suppose I can probably count myself amongst them."
Adelaide has been cooking in an excessive heat wave over the last few days, with temperatures soaring into the mid-40s, including a peak of 44.2C on Thursday to label Adelaide as the hottest city in the world on the day. An outbreak of bushfires are threatening to cancel stage one and never before in the event's 15-year history has a stage at the Tour Down Under been altered, postponed or cancelled.
"I'm from Victoria and the first hot day was Thursday a week ago," said Evans when asked about the advantages of acclimatisation over the European riders. "So I felt the heat this week as well."
Teams have been scrambling to keep cool and riders safe just one day after Europcar's Thomas Voeckler training ride collision with a car left him with a broken right collarbone and a flight immediately back to France for surgery.
Even with things heating up from the weather and a predicted strong showing from Gerrans and his Orica-GreenEdge contingent, the 36-year-old remains confident that his best riding is still ahead of him.
For Evans, the past two seasons since his historic win at the Tour de France have been plagued with interruptions and setbacks due to an unidentified string of illnesses. However Evans says he is finally getting over the hump and is on track for a potentially successful 2014. "The last two seasons have been a bit disappointing and frustrating," he said. "So far we are only one race into the 2014 season, but for now it's coming back together. It's frustrating when you don't know what is holding you back."
But Evans, who is an odds-on fan favourite, understands the importance of opening his WorldTour points account early and says that he any pressure he feels is self-inflicted.
"I have to be realist," Evans said. "I often get on the bike and feel pretty horrible and don't ride very well, certainly not as a Tour de France rider when they are in the Tour de France and winning. Sometimes people have expectations, but I have expectations on myself and I just look at those."
Evans, who will miss the Tour de France for the first time since 2005 to focus on the eventual showdown with Porte at the Giro, says that while early success is critical, he has not lost sight of the support from his fans and the growth of the sport.
"Sometimes you get an opportunity to race in Australia and sometimes not," Evans told Cyclingnews. "It's nice when I come to race here that there are a lot of people cheering on the side of the road for me which is fantastic, but most of all it's nice to see how much cycling has grown in Australia."