Giro d'Italia

How far can Evans go in the Giro?

A solid start to the Italian tour confirms the 37-year-old is a legitimate challenger for the pink jersey

Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) could find himself in the pink jersey by day’s end, even if he doesn’t want the Giro d’Italia’s leader’s jersey so soon. On Thursday, the veteran Australian might become the Giro’s accidental leader.

With the Giro’s longest stage on tap at 257 kilometers, and the hardest climb so far in this year’s race, Evans starts in third place, just 15 seconds out of the pink jersey. Orica-GreenEdge will start with Michael Matthews in pink and his teammate Pieter Weening behind him at 14 seconds back, but Thursday’s finale will surely see the GC contenders rev up their engines.

Being close to the maglia rosa, ahead of his rivals but not quite in pink, is right where Evans would like to stay.

“I think we’re well positioned a few seconds off the lead,” Evans said after riding to second in Wednesday’s stage. “I like the position where we are now.”

Taking the pink jersey so soon in the Giro wouldn’t be the ideal scenario for Evans and BMC. The 2011 Tour de France winner comes to Italy with the ultimate goal of striking pink in the final, decisive week of the Giro. Carrying the weight and burden of leading the race in the first week would be too much, too soon. Most GC contenders are content to watch Orica control the leader’s jersey in the frenetic, nervous opening stages of the Giro.

In Thursday’s uphill drag race up Montecassino, an 8.5km climb with ramps as steep as 9 percent, Evans could well end up in pink even if he doesn’t want it just yet.

Matthews is climbing well and has targeted the stage, but he might get gapped, especially if big surges come from the GC favorites. Joaquin Rodríguez (Katusha), 40th at 1:47 back, simply cannot let any opportunity slip by.

The ideal scenario, at least from Evans’ perspective, would be to let Weening, a Dutch rider who can climb well enough but who is not considered a true GC threat, inherit the jersey from his teammate if Matthews falters.

Evans will do his best to follow the attacks when they come, and he just might end up in pink as a result.

“I think we’re well-positioned right now,” Evans said. “We’ve worked really well as a team. [Thursday] we’re going to see another selective day, with another reshuffling of the GC. We’re going to have to be careful and attentive.”

The fact that Evans is within range of the pink jersey is a testament of his ambitions for this Giro.

Reluctantly, and at the insistence of BMC management, Evans has given up on the Tour in favor of an all-out push for the Giro.

“The team wants me to race the Giro and not the Tour, so here I am,” Evans said at the start of the Giro. “On a personal level, that’s fine for me. It came together for me on one of my Tours, and I don’t know if I will race the Tour again. I can leave that behind reasonably satisfied, and now I am putting all of my energy into the Giro.”

For the better part of a decade, Evans was knocking on the Tour door, and finally broke through to become the first Australian winner in 2011.

Evans faltered in 2012 (seventh), and 2013 (39th), and with Tejay van Garderen waiting in the wings, BMC decided it was time for the promising American to take full captaincy of BMC’s Tour ship, with the idea of challenging for the yellow jersey in the next few years.

BMC sporting manager Allan Peiper sat down with Evans last fall to convince him to race the Giro instead.

“Cadel can win the Giro. That is a fact. You cannot do both [Giro and Tour], not at his age, not in this era,” Peiper told VeloNews earlier this year. “Realistically, he can win the Giro. Going up against guys who are there, it’s not realistic he can win the Tour again. … It’s time to pass the baton.”

That reshuffling of BMC’s hierarchy was a hard blow for Evans, who was crucial to the team’s development and progression when he joined in 2010.

Although the Tour focus is now on van Garderen, that doesn’t mean Evans is somehow lost in the shuffle. BMC is making a full push for the Giro, replicating its successful Tour template, and using that as a blueprint to target the maglia rosa.

Since the beginning of the season, a core group of riders and staff have joined Evans in his approach toward the Giro. In many cases, they are Evans’ most trusted teammates, such as Brent Bookwalter, Manuel Quinziato, and Steve Morabito. Sport director Fabio Baldato has been with Evans all season.

After a solid start to the season, with a second overall and a stage victory at the Santos Tour Down Under in January, Evans was consistent in his European spring campaign, capped by two more stage wins and the overall at the Giro del Trentino in April.

His kick up Wednesday’s finale, hardly difficult but an important first glimpse of the contenders’ form, served as confirmation that Evans is on track for a solid Giro.

“It’s all coming together really well,” Evans said. “We will start to see a different kind of Giro. Each day passes and we’ll see more and more changes in GC.”

In what’s a wide-open Giro, Evans’ consistency and experience will go a long way in this race. Colombian rivals Rigoberto Urán (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and Nairo Quintana (Movistar) are both leading their teams outright for the first time, something that’s old hat for the veteran Australian.

Evans might not have the same top-end speed he packed five years ago, something that could handicap him in chasing time bonuses in the mountaintop finales later in the Giro, but his performances this season confirmed he still has the power to open gaps and hold them.

The stubborn Evans is also very difficult to drop. Even in the steepest mountains, he has the tenacity and depth to hang in there until the bitter end.

And he will have a big advantage against the pure climbers in the individual time trials, especially in the rolling, 42km power course looming in stage 12. Evans could carry big gains into the decisive final week.

Last year, Evans rode to third in what was a late-hour decision to hunt form ahead of the Tour. This year, the Giro is Evans’ Tour. At 37, this race gives Evans the opportunity to reconfirm his credentials as one of the peloton’s strongest and most consistent riders. Anyone who underestimates him could pay the price.