At the time, few mountain bikers had made a successful transition from the dirt to road. But Tony Rominger, his manager at the time and a four-time Grand Tour winner, convinced him that the rewards that awaited this quirky character from Katherine could one day be immense ... and so it turned out.
Once under the tutelage of Aldo Sassi his rise was apparent, though given the doping zeitgeist, results were not immediate or remarkable. And despite his obvious predisposition towards multi-day tours he did not ride his first Tour de France till 2005, aged 28, riding for Belgian team Davitamon-Lotto, where he finished eighth to Armstrong, who has since had his victory (and six others) annulled. But from then on, for Evans, the rest, as they say, is history.
The Tour became an obsession—from eighth to fourth to second, to second again in 2008, the logical next step was the top step in Paris. But in 2009 the strength of Contador and the brothers Schleck, the return of Armstrong, and the emergence of Bradley Wiggins, coupled with less than happy times with his Flemish-speaking counterparts and sub-standard form, seemed at first to mark the beginning of the end of the road for Cadel.
Thankfully, as often in cycling (as in life), there was another twist in the tale.
Near the close of the 2009 season, the Road World Championships in Mendrisio, Switzerland, marked a watershed moment: an uncharacteristic solo attack late in the race providing the never-say-die Aussie battler a launchpad to victory (an Australian first), keys to a new team, and a fully supported tilt at the Tour.
July 11 the following year and after the first mountain stage, the golden fleece was on his shoulders— though the celebration was shortlived.
A crash the previous day later revealed a hairline fracture in his left elbow, which consequently saw him freefall in the standings 24 hours after inheriting the maillot jaune.
He limped home to Paris almost an hour down, knowing that, by his own admission, he had ‘two, maybe three’ more chances left to win the prize that still eluded him.
By contrast and atypical for the incident-prone Evans, everything seemed to go right for Cadel in 2011 leading up to that year’s Grand Départ.
For once, it seemed, the stars had aligned in his favour.
His BMC Racing team caressed him through an accident-heavy opening week and a half, and while others like Wiggins and Contador came crashing down (and in the former’s case, out), Evans and his coterie appeared to walk (or rather, ride) on water.
A breakaway on Stage 9 that saw housewives’ favourite Thomas Voeckler elevated into yellow for the next nine days proved the perfect scenario, as the assiduous Cadel bided his time till the penultimate day’s time trial in Grenoble.
Andy Schleck rode a brilliant final week, capped off by victory on Stage 18 atop the Col du Galibier and the day after, the maillot jaune. But like so many times in his career, it was the race against the clock that proved the lanky Luxembourger’s undoing; failing to recce the decisive 42.5km time test before the race began did nothing except place a final nail in the coffin.
The enormity of Evans’ achievement made headlines around the world, including back home in Australia. Yet it wasn’t till he returned to a hero’s welcome in Melbourne’s Federation Square that the man himself realised the extent of his doing and its effect on the Australian psyche.
Till his retirement in February 2015 at the eponymous Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race, he never again had it so good. But there will be only be one man from the land Down Under who first conquered the biggest bike race of all—and that, of course, is him.
The Legends of the Tour can be purchased in the SBS shop.