With less than a month to go before the 2012 Tour start in Liège, there remains room for cautious optimism when it comes to Cadel Evans, writes Anthony Tan.
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7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:37 PM

Optimism is good but it should be cautious optimism… A little bit of healthy scepticism is in order.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the diminutive though toweringly inspirational newly elected Burma MP, who has spent 15 of the past 21 years under house arrest, was talking about the move by Western nations to ease trade sanctions with the country that once vilified her. But her comments could easily refer to the task ahead for Cadel Evans.

"These days I come across what I call reckless optimism," Ms Suu Kyi said in Bangkok at the World Economic Forum on East Asia, her first appearance abroad in 24 years.

Indeed, we cannot assume Evans will defend his Tour de France crown simply because his retinue of flacks tell us so or that we desperately want him to. Or, because the brothers Schleck and RadioShack-Nissan manager Johan Bruyneel have been at loggerheads ever since partnering with one another and so far this year, are talked about more for their off-the-bike than on-bike exploits.

Aside from Bradley Wiggins, who has not put a foot wrong all season, there is his Sky team-mate and revelation of last year's Vuelta a España, Christopher Froome.

There is also Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and a rebounded Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) and Robert Gesink (Rabobank), recent winner of the Amgen Tour of California, along with ruminating Russian Denis Menchov (Katusha).

And don't forget the Garmin-Barracuda tenacious troika, Tom Danielson, Christian Vande Velde and Ryder Hesjedal (and yes, of course the Giro winner will ride the Tour).

Most GC favourites will ride either this week's eight-day Criterium du Dauphiné in south eastern France, or the Tour de Suisse, commencing this Saturday 9 June and held over nine days.

"(The Dauphiné is) the closest to a mini-Tour de France because it's got all the elements on a slightly shorter scale," David Millar told The Independent last Friday.

"If you're going well there's a good chance you'll be going well at the Tour. But if you're going badly that doesn't always mean a bad Tour. Some guys have gone like a bag of shit in the Dauphiné but then won in July."

Equally, some guys have done brilliantly at the Dauphiné and gone like a "bag of shit" in July, to paraphrase Millar. Iban Mayo, 2004 winner of the Dauphiné but pariah of that year's Tour de France, is a case in point.

For Evans, the Dauphiné bears particular resonance because compared to Wiggins, whom most expect to be his arch rival in July, their season to date has seen polar opposites.

Where Wiggins has been on the money since the get-go, winning Paris-Nice and the Tour de Romandie as well as performing solidly in others, Evans's only source of optimism comes from his win at the two-day, three-stage Critérium International in late March.

And while he was very good there, particularly on the final stage that finished atop the Col de l'Ospedale, the field was less deep in comparison to the opposition Wiggins faced in the two week-long stage races he acquired in fine fashion.

"This will be my final test before the Tour de France and it's not only a good chance to gauge my training but also another chance to race with some of the guys who will be helping me at the Tour de France," Evans said in a team press release just prior to the Dauphiné.

"Though I haven't raced since the Tour de Romandie, I've been able to get a good bit of training in on much of the parcours that is similar to what I'll face in both the Dauphiné and the Tour."

Evans also said the team unity and morale that developed during and after his Tour triumph last July is critical and needs to return if he's to repeat his feat of yesteryear.

He told AAP that "although I didn't quite perform to my expectations this season, I feel we have that same unity now".

That said, a solid outing at the Dauphiné would no doubt reaffirm said unity, since as a whole, BMC, with nine wins to date, has not really performed to expectation so far this season, particularly two of its three highest-paid riders in Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd. By contrast, Sky, with 25 conquests, is only second to Omega Pharma-QuickStep, with 30 victories accrued in season 2012.

Don't assume, either, that Wiggins has gone out too hard, too soon.

"Brad and the people around him know what he's doing there (at the Dauphiné), there's no reason why he can't do very well there and even better at the Tour," Millar told The Independent.

In fact, no more than a few days after his impressive win at Paris-Nice where he virtually led from start to finish, the mercurial 32 year old with pork chop sideburns said: "I said Paris-Nice was a stepping stone, no disrespect for Paris-Nice. But I must continue that progression to July now. Lance Armstrong warned me recently not to burn too many matches for July."

Notwithstanding the addition of Robel, the abandoned Ethopian boy he and spouse Chiara Passerini chose to adopt, Evans said at the start of the year: "It wasn't the worst or the most unproductive off-season I've had. I trained well. I put a lot into training and everything looked good . . . my activities off the bike get publicised; my training rides and so on don't."

In other words, he and his team's meticulous approach to the Tour have not changed. The all-important recon of key mountain and time trial stages to be faced in this year's Grande Boucle has been done.

After his sub-par performance at Romandie, which he won the previous year, he told the Sydney Morning Herald: "I was a long way from the front, but I have been improving, and that's the most important thing now.

"Going from bad to a lot less bad is a bit behind from what I am used to at the Tour of Romandie. But that's OK . . . in terms of July, it might not even be a bad thing at all."

It was acknowledgement that work needs to be done, the fruit of which we should see at the Dauphiné and beyond.

Of Wiggins's so far flawless season that looks set to continue at the Dauphiné, having missed out on the prologue victory in Grenoble by just one second to Luke Durbridge, Evans said: "They'll go into the Tour more convinced than they may otherwise have been."

And that is his advantage, Cadel's, that is. He has proven he can do it. Wiggins, as good as he's been this year, is yet to show us he can. Hence room for cautious, though not reckless, optimism.