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Back in 2002, when Cadel Evans was making his grand tour debut at the Giro d’Italia following his transition from mountain biking, he unexpectedly snagged the pink jersey. A curious Italian journalist asked the then 25-year-old a pointed question: “Do you know who Fausto Coppi is?”
Evans demurred, admitting he wasn’t a student of the history of the sport, and he eventually finished 14th. That promising result, however, confirmed that the Australian had the engine to one day win a grand tour.
Flash forward 12 years, and Evans, now 37, is back in the maglia rosa. Over the years, he’s had time to learn about Coppi, and now he’s poised to become the oldest Giro winner.
With the Giro peloton clicking back into gear for week 2 following the second of three rest days Monday, Evans (BMC Racing) is in the driver’s seat to win the pink jersey when the Giro ends June 1 in Trieste.
“We have to be satisfied with our work so far,” Evans said. “I am very happy with the team. They are the ones who have put me in the position to be here now.”
Giro starting to look like 2011 Tour
Evans returned to the Giro in 2010, wearing the pink jersey again, and eventually arriving to Milan in fifth overall. Last year he was third, giving him podiums in all three grand tours. Despite his Giro success, his focus and obsession became the Tour de France, which he finally won in 2011 in a brutal edition marked by crashes, bad weather, and the winning difference made in the time trials.
Halfway through the 2014 Giro, conditions are stacking up eerily similar to how Evans won the yellow jersey in 2011. Could history be repeating itself? There are some similarities.
Just like in 2011, when such riders as Bradley Wiggins, Chris Horner, Alexander Vinokourov, and Andreas Kloden all crashed out, several key Giro favorites have been eliminated in early crashes. Already gone are Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) and Daniel Martin (Garmin-Sharp), and others are hobbled or lagging behind, including Michele Scarponi (Astana), Nicolas Roche (Tinkoff-Saxo), and Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp).
Also comparable to 2011, BMC has brought a very strong team completely focused on protecting Evans. The 2011 Tour featured some brutal opening stages, and BMC devised a strategy to “bulldoze” Evans through the flats and early stages, and deliver him intact and fresh for the decisive mountains. That’s playing out similarly in this year’s rainy and treacherous Giro. While other teams have suffered crashes and setbacks, Evans has largely been untouched by mishaps, and that’s in large part thanks to his teammates.
Evans won the 2011 Tour in the closing time trial, taking back time on climber Andy Schleck to become Australia’s first yellow jersey winner. Though it’s not on the penultimate stage, the Giro’s first of two individual time trials, set for Thursday, could tip Evans over the top going into the mountains this weekend.
“The Barolo time trial is certainly a place where I’d like to take time, but I’ll just do the best time trial I can, and then look at the results afterward,” Evans said. “I hope that a course suited to me should be to by advantage, but we’ll see.”
The Giro is a very different race than the Tour, with steeper climbs and more chaos in the peloton, but BMC is bringing a Tour-type strategy to the Giro. So far it’s paying off in spades.
Halfway through the Giro, it’s Evans’ race to lose. Here’s what he has going for him:
Some say Evans should have waited in stage 6 when the peloton crashed in his wake, but like it or not, the time differences at Montecassino, coupled with gains in the opening team time trial when BMC was third at seven seconds behind winners Orica-GreenEdge, have put Evans into an enviable position. Ten riders are still within 121 seconds of the pink jersey, with Rigoberto Urán (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) the closest threat at 57 seconds back, but Evans and BMC can use that margin to their advantage. They can allow certain riders to go up the road, forcing others looking to protect their GC position to take up the chase. Evans can then save his legs to mark the most dangerous moves, and then counter-attack on top of that if he can. As the old saying goes, it’s better to have time than be forced to take it back on a rival.
No rider in the Giro has as much grand tour experience as Evans. Ivan Basso (Cannondale), 11th at 2:01 back, has been around the block, but the 36-year-old Italian hasn’t shown much since winning the Giro for a second time since 2010. There were only a handful of grand tour winners at the start line in Belfast, and Evans is the only former Tour winner in the Giro. Younger rivals, such as Nairo Quintana (Movistar) or Urán, have yet to win a grand tour. Evans is also a world-class bike handler, and knows how to move around the peloton efficiently, using energy only when he needs to. His knowledge at managing efforts, and his composure under pressure, will pay dividends as the Giro turns into its brutal final week.
BMC brought a very strong and proven team to support Evans’ all out bid for pink. Brent Bookwalter, Steve Morabito, and Manuel Quinziato are all faithful riders who were part of BMC’s 2011 Tour-winning team. Samuel Sánchez, who won the King of the Mountains jersey in the 2011 Tour, brings added depth and experience unrivaled by other teams. Katusha brought its A-team, but crashes have eliminated Rodríguez, Angel Vicioso, and Giampaolo Caruso. So far, BMC has done a great job keeping Evans and its key helpers out of trouble, something that will prove pivotal against hobbled rivals.
Evans will likely tighten his grip on pink in the 41.9-kilometer individual time trial Thursday. The rolling profile across the Barolo wine country, which includes a 350-meter climb in the opening 12km, is not a pure power course, yet Evans can still expect to take minutes out several important GC rivals. He’s without question the best time trialist among the top-10. Adriano Malori (Movistar) could pop for the stage win, while Wilco Kelderman (Belkin), eighth at 1:44 back, and Quintana should also do well, but Evans should be able to bolster his lead before turning to the Alps.
If there’s one quality that Evans has consistently proven time and again, it is his dogged determination. While he’s lost some of his finish line punch, something that could handicap him in the hunt for time bonuses and stage victories in a few stages, his staying power is unmatched. Poor weather and crashes have already taken the edge off some of the pure climbers, so it will take a very strong climber to take serious time out of Evans. When Evans is good, he is very hard to drop. And he’s looking very good right now.
Still a long road to go
Of course, anything can happen in a grand tour, something that Evans knows well from his career full of highs and lows. Evans is experienced enough to not look too far ahead, and knows that every stage can present some sort of unexpected challenge. Here are a few things that could go wrong:
The big question mark for Evans is his staying power on the harder climbs. During the past two Tours, other rivals have outgunned him. So far, Evans remains untested in the high mountains, and this Giro’s second half is packed with them. The Zoncolan, a climbing time trial at Monte Grappa, and the fearsome double of the Gavia and Stelvio all wait like an executioner for anyone who falters. The Italian roads, steeper and narrower, are not ideal for Evans’ preferred style of racing. He struggles with accelerations and inconsistent terrain. The scrappy climbers are all counting on the final week to open up opportunities and claw back time against Evans.
A rival takes wings
It’s bound to happen. So far, this Giro has been very “closed,” with few opportunities to attack. Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r La Mondiale) was lively Sunday, punching into the top-5, but the heavy climbs waiting next weekend will provide the first true snapshot of where everyone is on form. If Evans reveals signs of cracking, his rivals will only chip away more. Quintana and Urán are perhaps the most explosive, but Fabio Aru (Astana), Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo), and Kelderman are all lurking in the top-10. Any one of them could produce a race-changing attack.
Crashes and collusion
Staying healthy is paramount for any contender. No one is immune to bad luck. Grand tour winners are typically those who manage to avoid calamities. After a frenetic start, this Giro should calm down during the next week. The GC selection has already put many out of pink jersey range, and the next two stages will see breakaways and sprints, taking the edge off the GC favorites. There will also be talk of collusion between the Colombians, but any cooperation between riders will only happen on the road. The Colombians will be gunning for Evans, but they will also have one eye on each other as well.
Father time catches up
At 37, Evans would become the oldest Giro winner in history if he carries pink to Trieste, a record held by Fiorenzo Magni, who won at age 34 in 1955. Last year at the Vuelta, Chris Horner at 41 proved that age is not necessarily a handicap, but Evans has struggled to reach his best level at the Tour over the past two summers. Is he still capable of a second grand tour win? Thursday’s time trial will prove decisive. If Evans can ride into next weekend’s trio of climbing stages with an insurmountable lead, the others might start racing for the podium. If not, the others will attack, and Evans might run out of gas across the Giro’s brutal final week. What Evans wants to avoid is losing the jersey to a legitimate contender. He is in an ideal position to consolidate his lead in Thursday’s time trial, and then defend it across the mountains. If he loses a lot of time, it would be very difficult to regain any losses against the climbing aces on their favored ground.
Evans has come a long way since first donning the pink jersey in 2002. If he manages to win the maglia rosa in 2014, it would be a fitting testament to his career. If he doesn’t, that means someone is going to have to take it from him. And that sets up for what should be a very interesting second half of the Giro.