Calls for Cadel Evans to be dumped as BMC's Tour de France leader may be premature, but the 2011 champion is certainly walking on the precipice after the best part of 12 months riding in the shadow of young American talent Tejay van Garderen.
"There is some short-term memory from the media, I had a virus last year and I still was seventh in the Tour de France... I did actually win the Tour once before (in 2011). That does sort of proves that I can do it (again)."
So said Evans in an interview with Reuters journalist Julien Pretot after the finish of the Criterium International on Sunday.
The Australian had just rolled into the finish of the crucial Col de l’Ospedale stage some 15 minutes down on overall winner Chris Froome (Sky) after working in the service of van Garderen to the bottom of the 14.2km Category 1 climb, and then turning off the lights and cruising to the summit.
The previous day, he’d been 74th in the seven-kilometre individual time trial in Porto-Vecchio, one second behind a recuperating Andy Schleck.
Despite carving a calm figure at the finish of the race, a defiant Evans should have been expecting questions of his performance in Corsica. The 2011 Tour de France champion had entered the race as defending champion, and exited it in 51st overall.
That came after a passable Tirreno-Adriatico, where he was 22nd, and third at the Tour of Oman, his only result of note so far in 2013.
It's true, Evans was out of sorts last year, yet still managed to finish seventh overall at the Tour de France. No mean feat. And to be fair, his results so far this season don’t tell the whole story of his form. In Tirreno, for example, Evans had a reasonable ride through the race’s queen stage to Prati di Tivo before conceding time on the more complex Ardennes-style finish in Chieti the next day.
And if we take Evans at his word, and he was riding in Corsica totally in support of team-mate Tejay van Garderen, his performance is hardly worth dwelling on.
But the fact that people are questioning whether his best is past him should come as no surprise to the Australian.
At 36, to win the Tour this year, Evans would have to become the oldest rider in the event’s 100-year history to do so. Not that that’s necessarily a barrier which can’t be overcome, but it does prompt doubts. Evans admits himself to being “behind” where he needs to be after a slower build-up recovering from last year’s troubles.
Just how behind is interesting when you look at the lead-up to each and every one of his past Tour participations, with the exception of 2012 (illness) and 2010 (he rode the Giro).
Key results leading into a Tour de France
2005 - 8th Paris-Nice, 15th Pais Vasco, 8th* Tour de France
2006 - 7th California, 8th Pais Vasco, 1st Romandie, 10th Tour de Suisse 4th Tour de France
2007 - 7th Paris-Nice, 13th Pais Vasco, 4th Romandie, 2nd Dauphine, 2nd Tour de France
2008 - 16th Paris-Nice, 1st Coppi e Bartali, 2nd Pais Vasco, 2nd Dauphine, 2nd Tour de France
2009 - 21st Paris-Nice, 2nd Coppi e Bartali, 3rd Pais Vasco, 7th Romandie, 2nd Dauphine, 29th Tour de France
2011 - 1st Tirreno-Adriatico, 7th Catalunya, 1st Romandie, 2nd Dauphine, 1st Tour de France
2013 - 3rd Tour of Oman, 22nd Tirreno-Adriatico, 51st Criterium International
Without exception, if Evans has featured at the Tour, he’s also been strong in March; Paris-Nice (2005, 2007, 2008), Coppi e Bartali (2008, 2009), and in his one winning year, at Tirreno-Adriatico (2011). That formula has been consistent across the board. Bradley Wiggins’s 2012 Tour campaign included bagging Paris-Nice, for Contador in 2009 it was Algarve, and in 2007 he won Paris-Nice.
Perhaps, like Carlos Sastre did in 2008, Evans is keeping his powder dry for a longer peak into the latter half of the season. Sastre was late into form before riding well at the Tour, and the Vuelta. Evans could well be following a similar path having already said the world championships, on a course suited to him near Florence, are a big objective for the year. But we’ll leave that for now.
Referring back to the above table, 2009’s non-performance sticks out like a sore thumb. Evans had finished all of his previous four Tours inside the top 10. In 2009, he was 29th. So what was so different that year?
“Physically everything is fine, but for professional reasons I can't comment on the other problems I'm having,” said Evans just before the close of the 2009 race.
Without naming names, it was obvious that internal trouble at Silence-Lotto had gotten the better of Evans. Jurgen van den Broeck had been given freedom and support by the team to do his own thing, while Evans felt he’d been undervalued and underappreciated. That, and a crash early in the race, took a toll on the 2008 runner-up which made for a very average Tour from the Australian.
Evans felt rightly he didn’t have the confidence of his team, and promptly left for a new opportunity at BMC. As it transpired, Lotto had pulled the trigger on Evans a little bit early. He flourished at BMC, a new lease of life, seeing him deliver a solid Giro d’Italia in 2010, before his crown jewel, the 2011 Tour. In both of those years Evans was BMC’s main man.
Cue the arrival of van Garderen in 2012. Brought in to bolster Evans's support in the mountains, the American has been quietly building an impressive palmares since joining BMC, not least his Tour performance where he was head and shoulders above the Australian, and his far more consistent season to date.
While Evans can still improve, for BMC there must be a temptation to look at van Garderen, the Australian’s heir-apparent, as a better bet come Tour time.
That may be unsettling for the Australian if 2009 is anything to go by. It’s certainly hard to envisage van Garderen not being given even more of a free-role than he was last year, where he rode ‘ostensibly’ in the service of Evans. Will that further expose the Australian’s former fragility?
With the Tour de France’s Grand Depart less than 100 days away, there is still time for Evans to come good. Romandie will be a big test, as will the Dauphine. If Evans puts the doubts over his form to bed in either of those races, he'll go into the Tour as leader. If not, then BMC and Evans would do well to be honest with each other and reassess. van Garderen could stand on the Tour podium, but can Evans?