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Inside the Tour by John Wilcockson: Evans, a complete champion

The cool-headed Aussie eludes the Tour frenzy in Grenoble

GRENOBLE, France (VN) — “There’s a car, a car … il y a une voiture!” You could hear the panic in the voice of a television technician who was being pinned back against the trunk of a race official’s red Skoda by a solid mass of media crews.

Andy Schleck is swarmed by the media after the time trial.
The mob was moving en masse like a giant bubble around the rider wearing a yellow skinsuit, Andy Schleck, who’d just thrown every last ounce of energy into defending (unsuccessfully) his Tour de France lead against Cadel Evans.

The skinny Luxembourger crossed the finish line in the stage 19 time trial knowing he had lost the Tour for the third time in three years. Still in a state of shock, Schleck wiped away sweat from his face as he struggled to get out the words to express his huge disappointment at finishing second one more time.

A few minutes earlier, the reporters and technicians had sprinted through the finish area with their boom mikes and clumsy cameras to get a first reaction from Evans, but the BMC Racing champion dodged the scrum by heading straight into the calm of the protocol area. So the crews were hungry for any quotes from the man Evans had just defeated so convincingly.

The Tour is cycling’s Super Bowl, but can you imagine the TV crews running onto the field after Brett Favre right after he has thrown an interception and lost the Lombardi Trophy for his team? Well, that’s what the Tour is like. And that’s a big part of why the public loves the Tour and its heroes.

The thousands of fans packed like metaphorical sardines behind the crowd barriers along Grenoble’s Boulevard Clemenceau on Saturday afternoon were in festive mood as they greeted their favorites one by one every few minutes during the time trial. They chanted, “Tom-ah, Tom-ah, Tom-ah,” when their new French hero Thomas Voeckler came to a halt after retaining his totally shocking fourth place in the Tour.

They responded emotionally to the tears of Voeckler’s young Europcar teammate Pierre Roland after he inelegantly pounded to the finish line with pure vigor to retain his white jersey as the Tour’s best young rider. And they cheered defeated champion Alberto Contador for his thrilling attacks in the Alps as he coasted past them without the pursuing media entourage to which he was accustomed during his unbroken run of six grand tour victories in the past five years.

But the rowdy fans — a hefty contingent of Aussies among them — had to wait awhile before Evans appeared to receive the most important yellow jersey of his career. He’d been backstage, hugging his BMC squad’s owners Jim Ochowicz and Andy Ryhs, who gave him the chance to create his own entourage for a true assault on the Tour after twice placing second with an ill-suited Belgian team, Silence-Lotto.

2011 Tour de France, stage 20, Cadel Evans
Cadel Evans is about to become the first Tour winner from Down Under.
Once he was done with the formal presentations, the stand-up interviews and the anti-doping control, Evans walked through the evening sunshine to the media center, trailed by a growing group of reporters, fans and hangers-on. As he entered the press room, a spontaneous round of applause brought an extra sparkle to the 34-year-old Aussie’s already smiling face. Evans knew that winning the respect of the European press corps is hard to earn. And he richly earned it over the past three weeks.

Evans will be standing atop the Paris podium on Sunday afternoon because of more factors than he could detail in his 20-minute press conference. He said, “I want to thank everyone who has helped me since I was 14 years old … when I first saw the Tour de France on TV.”

Then, in a wavering, tear-filled voice, Evans paid homage to his longtime Italian sports trainer Aldo Sassi, who died of brain cancer last December, for teaching him the preparation and training skills that have made him a champion. Evans said how his winning the world road championship at Mendrisio in 2009 had made Sassi so truly happy.

The new yellow jersey then recalled a conversation he had with his guru last year before Sassi died: “He told me, ‘I am sure you can win a grand tour, and for you it has to be the Tour de France, the greatest race in the world. And then you will be the most complete rider of your generation.”

And it was by being just that, a champion who inspired his troops to a stunning second place in the team time trial, who won an epic stage himself on a rain-soaked Breton hilltop, who rode constantly near the head of the peloton protected by his own red guard, who bravely defended his chances with spectacular rides through the Alps … and who then finished it off with an individual time-trial performance worthy of the greatest Tour champions.

And he has done it in what has been one of the greatest-ever Tours.

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