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Rating the Tour de France favorites, from W(iggins) to Z

Cadel Evans (AUS), BMC Racing ★★★★

Throughout his decade-long career on the road, Cadel Evans had a reputation as a quirky rider, prone to buckling under pressure. But that was before the fall of 2009. Now he enters the 2012 Tour de France as the defending champion and one of two top favorites for victory in Paris.

It was in October 2009 that Evans won the world road title with a gritty attack in Mendrisio, Switzerland, barely 10 minutes from his current home in Stabio. That move — and his subsequent transfer to BMC Racing — was the birth of a new-look Cadel Evans.

He won the 2010 Flèche Wallonne spring classic, then rode through stage 9 of that year’s Tour with the yellow jersey and a fractured elbow. In 2011 Evans made a run through the early stage races, winning Tirrreno-Adriatico and finishing second at the Critérium du Dauphiné. And on July 24, 2011, Evans stood atop the Tour’s final podium in yellow, the first Australian to do so.

Now the task is to get back there.

With the support of George Hincapie, who has ridden alongside more Tour de France winners than any rider in history, and Italian workhorse Manuel Quinziato, Evans enjoys one of the strongest teams in the peloton. Factor in team manager Jim Ochowicz’s dogged obsession with excellence and team owner Andy Rihs’ will to assemble the best team possible, and Evans’ path to yellow should be smoothly paved.

True, the BMC squad has struggled this year, but early season setbacks are nothing new for Evans. In 2011 he missed the Ardennes classics with a quadriceps injury. This year he pulled out after the Amstel Gold Race to recover from a sinus infection.

But Evans’ return to form has taken more time than in 2011. His only wins to date came at the two-day Critérium International and a stage at the Critérium du Dauphiné earlier this month. That victory, which came from a gutsy, late, three-man attack, gave the peloton notice that BMC Racing’s early woes wouldn’t count them out in July.

And while Evans didn’t win the Dauphiné, he asserted his presence throughout and took home the points jersey, finishing third overall, less than a minute and a half down on winner Bradley Wiggins (Sky). When he finished second a year ago, it was also behind Wiggins.

The Briton himself recognized Evans’ talent for reaching his peak right at the critical moment.

“Cadel was down by a similar amount last year in the Grenoble time trial here,” Wiggins said after winning the stage-4 time trial at the Dauphiné. “By the time the Tour came around, that last time trial, you know, I think I would’ve struggled to beat Cadel that day. It just showed how he turned that around.”

Even in the midst of the excitement about his Dauphiné win, Wiggins was wary about underestimating Evans and pointed to how greatly his form differed between June and July last year. The Australian’s rivals are not distracted by Evans’ relatively quiet spring, aware that a lot can change between the end of the Dauphiné and the second week of the Tour.

Evans’ greatest asset will be how well rounded he is. Strong in the mountains, strong in the time trial, with a mind for strategy, backed by a team that has more star power than any other in the peloton, Evans is favorite 1A.

The course, which features more than 100km of individual time trials and just three true mountaintop finishes, appears ideal for Evans and the team that Ochowicz built around him.

As he did last year, Evans has a team packed with classics-style riders to pull him safely through the grind of the early race. Stalwarts like Quinziato and Marcus Burghardt should keep Evans safe through the Tour’s tough opening week and into the Vosges and Jura mountains.

And this year he has climbing specialists Tejay van Garderen and Steve Cummings to pace him in the high mountains. That is the one thing that Evans lacked more than any other in 2011 — a superdomestique capable of riding with the race’s top contenders.

The rest Evans can do for himself. He should be able to gain plenty of time against the clock to be competitive with Wiggins. And Evans’ chase of Andy Schleck on the Col du Galibier to save his 2011 Tour, when no other GC favorite — not yellow jersey Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) nor Alberto Contador — would (or could) help, was the stuff of legend.

When it’s all laid on the road, we wouldn’t be surprised to see the final GC come down to under a half-minute between the Evans and Wiggins after the time trial in Chartres on the race’s final Saturday. That is, if Evans can continue to keep cool in the July heat.

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