This year’s Tour Down Under is shaping up to be a sporting contest that transcends, and in some eyes surpasses, the race itself.
7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:38 PM

Two Australians, two wily thirty-something prize fighters, both in the top condition, looking to take the scalp of Australia's blue riband race, before moving on to bigger things. Anthony Tan sets the scene in what could appropriately be called 'Rumble in the Willunga Jungle'.

As Muhammed Ali once said, "The seed of triumph can be found in the misery of the disappointment."

For Cadel Evans, a man who views anything other than first place as losing, the last two seasons have been disappointing.

Twelve days ago, the Australian national road championship, where he finished second to Simon Gerrans, his greatest adversary at the Tour Down Under, was also disappointing, but as Ali also said, "The greatest surprise is always to be found in one's own heart."

There in Ballarat, on the unforgiving Buninyong circuit, Evans discovered his heart was still in it; better yet, his heart still beat a tune that told him, 'You're still a champion. You can still do it'.

It may have only been one day in the saddle, and just three days in to the 2014 WorldTour, but yesterday en route to Campbelltown, on the third stage of the Tour Down Under, we also learned what Cadel already knew. We now know he is on track for a bona fide tilt at the Giro d'Italia crown, twelve years after he almost won the race at his first attempt.

"It's still four months to go to the Giro, but this is all part of the effort to build up Cadel for May," Allan Peiper, BMC Racing's performance director, said Thursday.

"This win is important for his confidence. Everyone can see the happiness that he has when he's riding his bike. He might underestimate the boost he's had from the Australian public, from the national championships, and racing this week."

In The Fight, Norman Mailer's account of the 1974 world heavyweight title fight in Kinshasa, Zaïre, colloquially known as 'The Rumble In the Jungle', a battle between the aging yet voluble "professor of boxing" Ali and the taciturn George Foreman, the great writer summed up one of the latter's pre-fight press conferences as such:

"His replies gave a tasty skew to the mood, as if there were more he could always say but would not in order to preserve the qualities of composure and serenity – they were tasty too."

Evans' replies are not unlike Foreman's, no?

Rarely formulaic, sometimes cryptic, never giving away too much – but 'tasty' enough.

"The inevitable schizophrenia of great athletes was in his voice," Mailer wrote.

"Like artists, it is hard for them not to see the finished professional as a separate creature from the child that created him. The child (now grown up) still accompanies the great athlete and is wholly in love with him, an immature love, be it said."

Both Evans and Gerrans now have a stage win apiece but as the 2011 Tour champ said in Campbelltown, "GC is the type of rider that I am and stage wins are great but GC's what we're all about; GC's is what we're really here for."

Did you see that look on Cadel's face as he hurtled down Corkscrew and onwards to the finish? His head bobbing and thrashing like a lion who had just ensnared its pray and was chewing his victim's head off! I haven't seen that face since Mendrisio in 2009, when he won the world road title in equally scintillating fashion.

Meanwhile, Gerrans, while not "programmed for GC" as Evans described himself yesterday, is also not here for stage wins.

But is he, already a two-time winner of the Tour Down Under, as hungry as Evans?

"I don't think we've ever seen the leader, in the last couple of years, who has the leader's jersey early, manages to win it," Gerrans said Thursday. "It's not going to be easy for Cadel. We're going to throw everything at him, that's for sure."

You bet he is.

In this race, in the battle for GC, there is no time for feints and stratagems. Willunga is everything. "Saturday will decide it all," said Richie Porte of Team Sky.

You can feel the strategy between BMC and Orica-GreenEDGE, the camps of Evans and Gerrans.

"Sooner or later," wrote Mailer before the contest between Ali and Foreman, "there must come a time in the fight when Ali would be so tired he could not move, could only use his arms to protect himself. Then he would be like a heavy bag. Then Foreman would treat him like a heavy bag.

"In the immense and massive confidence of these enormous reverberating blows his fists would blast through every protection of Ali, smashing at those forearms until they could protect Ali no more."

On Saturday, as happened on Corkscrew, sooner or later, there will come a time in the fight when the teammates of Evans and Gerrans can protect them no more, when it will be every man for himself; when one will become a heavy bag.

Ali won the fight, by the way, showing he could not only throw a punch but take one, too, and changing his style to counter his opponent. Foreman, despite his efforts, was unable to secure a rematch, but in an unlikely comeback after retiring in 1977, he regained the world heavyweight title, aged 45; at the time, the oldest man ever to do so.