Evans rolls to Tour win

Career underachiever finally conquers France

By Naomi Koppel
Associated Press / July 25, 2011

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PARIS - Cadel Evans has been keeping fans back home up all night watching him become the first Australian to win the Tour de France. It’s a victory that’s been a long time coming.

Over the years, Evans has been better known for failing to live up to expectations than for overachieving.

He finished second in the 2007 Tour and was expected to win the next year, but was runner-up again.

Last year, he was leading the race but crashed and fractured his left elbow. The pain was too much and he dropped out of contention in tears, ultimately finishing 50 minutes behind winner Alberto Contador.

This time, persistence, planning - and a little good luck - paid off.

“I hope I brought a great deal of joy to my countrymen, my country,’’ Evans said yesterday after climbing onto the winner’s podium on the Champs-Elysees.

The 34-year-old Evans, the oldest champion since before World War II, stood on the podium wrapped in his national flag, his eyes tearing up as he listened to the Australian national anthem. He then embraced Andy and Frank Schleck.

The brothers from Luxembourg had pushed him all the way to the end, but were finally defeated in Saturday’s race against the clock.

On the traditional Tour victory lap on the Champs-Elysees, champagne in hand, Evans seemed to stop to celebrate with just about every fan bearing an Australian flag.

As he clambered into his BMC team bus, hundreds of people shouted praise, one yelling, “Cadel, we love you!’’ and others chanting “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie - Oy, Oy, Oy!’’

This was a very different Tour from the ones of the recent past that have been dominated by a single rider - Lance Armstrong or Contador. At least seven riders could have won it with only a few days remaining.

Contador, who is fighting a legal battle to hold on to last year’s victory after a positive drug test, faded away in the final stages and finished fifth.

On yesterday’s largely ceremonial ride to Paris, Contador smiled and chatted with Evans, even patting the Australian on the back. Afterward, the three-time Tour champion said he told Evans “he was the strongest rider, and it’s normal that he won.’’

Evans’s final margin of victory over Andy Schleck was 1 minute, 34 seconds, but all of that was achieved in Saturday’s time trial. Evans hadn’t panicked when Andy Schleck had jumped ahead on the climb of the Galibier pass on Thursday and then took the overall lead in Friday’s last mountain stage.

Evans’s wife, Chiara, did. She was consumed with emotion - at times unable to bear the suspense when he needed to make up 57 seconds in the time trial to wrest the yellow jersey from the younger Schleck brother.

“You don’t want to know. I was really, really bad. Crying and everything,’’ she said.

The Tour was also notable for the hard work of Thomas Voeckler, who defied all predictions to wear the yellow jersey as race leader for 10 days, delighting the victory-starved French, and for the success of British rider Mark Cavendish, who captured five stages and won the green jersey of top sprinter.

In a race often marred in the past by doping allegations, only one rider has so far tested positive, although many of the doping tests done this year have yet to be analyzed.

Contador’s positive test last year only came out after the race finished.

Evans has never faced doping allegations, and his longtime coach Aldo Sassi was known to be opposed to doping. Some have suggested that may be why until now he hasn’t been able to achieve his promise, though Evans won’t discuss that.

“When you look at the race, it’s obvious that we don’t have the same feeling like in the past, when riders were sometimes supermen,’’ Michel Rieu, scientific adviser of the French anti-doping agency AFLD, said.

When Evans crossed the line, he was catapulted to stardom.

“I just want to say thank you to everyone who’s had faith in me,’’ Evans said.