Cadel Evans (BMC Racing Team) was not quite able to match Chris Froome (Team Sky) and Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) on the climbs at the Tour of Oman and finished third overall at 39 seconds. But after being out of action for almost six months following a difficult 2012 season that was affected by a low-impact and therefore difficult to diagnose virus, he was rightly satisfied to the start of his 2013 campaign.
The tough but quietly-spoken Australian has worked hard during the winter to start the new season on the front foot and show he is not yet ready for retirement, despite turning 36 on February 14.
"I was hoping for a little bit more, but in the scheme of things and comparing to how I was last year at the Tour de France, the Olympics and in Colorado, it's a bit of a relief to be where I am now," Evans told the journalists present in Oman.
"I'm not fully, fully, recovered but certainly enough to be back at the front. I'm a little bit away from the win but it's a good place to start and bears well for the rest of the season. I like to start the season in good shape. Not everybody does but I like to, because it puts you in a good frame of mind and puts your team in a good frame of mind."
Evans has been accumulating energy as he waited for his body to recover from the virus. Like a coiled spring, he is now ready to bounce back.
"I didn’t touch my bike for six weeks, and when you watch the races and see the results, and the motivation is still there, it accumulates inside you, it motivates you," he said.
"Cycling is very intense and so some time away gives you perspective and lets you reflect about how you do your job, how you handle the physical and the mental approach, all the factors that go into your performance. The new energy helps you go back and make thinks better. Guys like Lance Armstrong and Laurent Jalabert came back as better riders after they took a break. I hope the same happens to me."
Evans will follow a traditional race programme and build up for the Tour de France, targeting Tirreno-Adriatico, the Tour de Romandie and the Criterium du Dauphine before July.
"I'll probably also ride the Ardennes week but I've got a particular teammate eyeing those races. But I'm happy to be a special domestique that week," he joked, indicating to Philippe Gilbert, who at the time is sat in the same room and facing a similar barrage of question from journalists in French.
Evans is determined to be team leader at the Tour de France. His understudy and heir at BMC, Tejay van Garderen, stepped up when Evans struggled last year, finishing fifth and taking the best young rider's white jersey. However Evans warns the talent young American about becoming overly ambitious, reminding him, perhaps from personal experience, of the difference between winning the Tour de France and a minor prize like the white jersey.
"Transitioning from white jersey to Tour winner in a year, that's never happened in history, has it? Ullrich aside and perhaps Merckx," Evans pointed out, highlighting the difference. "I think Tejay has started off in a good position but at his age, I wouldn't want those expectations personally."
Evans may feel his young teammate breathing down his neck and knows his time is ticking away. But he insists his enthusiasm and experience will keep him going. Perhaps not until he is 40 but at least to the end of his substantial BMC contract in 2014.
"When you get older, you accumulate what you didn’t know before. When you're young, you have a lot of energy and desire. Sometimes that makes up for the lack of experience but cycling is a sport where experience counts a lot," he explained.
"I'm still learning and every year is different and every race is different. People and especially the media like to talk about me being 36, about being one of the oldest Tour winners. They ask me when I'm going to retire. But I love what I do, I'm motivated, I feel young when I ride and look forward to racing. My wife doesn't want me to do it for ever but I'm enjoying it and consider my age just a number."
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Stephen is the most experienced member of the Cyclingnews team, having reported on professional cycling since 1994. He has held the position of European editor since 2012 and previously worked for Reuters, Shift Active Media, and Cycling Weekly, among other publications.