LES HERBIERS, France (AFP) – Cadel Evans believes Alberto Contador remains the man to beat at this year’s Tour de France despite the Spaniard’s recent efforts in winning the Giro d’Italia.
The Australian, who lost the race to Contador by just 23secs in 2007, also finished runner-up to another Spaniard, Carlos Sastre, in 2008.
During the past two editions, Evans collected a series of mishaps, including broken bones, crashes and losing key teammates, as he finished beyond 20th place overall.
This year, and despite a rich field of yellow jersey contenders, he has done everything possible to make sure he arrived in France ready to race.
“I come here feeling better than I have done in recent years, I’m certainly much better prepared,” the Australian said Friday a day ahead of the July 2-24 race.
After his late start to the season, Evans took prestigious victories at Tirreno-Adriatico, the Tour of Romandie and was a recent runner-up at the tough Criterium du Dauphine.
“After the Dauphine, which was harder this year than it usually is, I took a bit longer to recover. Then I went into the mountains to train with (teammate) Steve Morabito and then came here.”
Evans had input, as early as last November, in choosing the eight riders who will accompany him on his seventh Tour campaign.
And he did not race the Giro, as he did last year, to make sure fatigue in the crucial third week of the Tour would not become an issue.
What Evans can’t control is key rivals like Contador and fellow two-time runner-up Andy Schleck.
Contador comes into the race bidding for a fourth title, and having won the last six Grand Tours in which he has competed.
“Contador is a good all-rounder but you have to be a good all-rounder, and slightly better, to beat him,” Evans conceded.
Contador won his second Giro d’Italia in late May, crushing his rivals’ hopes with a formidable climbing display on his way to victory on stage 9 atop Mount Etna.
Evans watched it on television, and believes the Spaniard didn’t dip so deep into his reserves in the remainder of the race.
“On the first day (in the mountains) on Mount Etna he had everyone psyched out. Guys seemed to have more or less accepted that they would be riding for second place,” added Evans.
“I watched the Giro on TV and it seemed that Alberto was not being pushed to his absolute limit.”
While Evans and Schleck will be hoping this year’s Giro takes its toll on Contador eventually, it’s not just the Spaniard Evans has to deal with.
He notably mentioned Schleck, the runner-up in 2009 and 2010, whose brother Frank crashed out early last year, and last year’s Giro champion Ivan Basso of Italy.
“Andy has a big advantage in having his brother here. He can be like a super-domestique. No disrespect to all my guys, but on paper he (Andy) seems to be the best supported rider in the mountains,” added Evans.
Basso had a mediocre Dauphine campaign as he recovered from injury, but when asked if the Italian was a threat Evans said: “Absolutely, looking back at the Giro last year Basso seemed quite ordinary until the first rest day but after that he was really quite incredible.
“He’s got plenty of experience in grand tours so he’s someone you can never underestimate.”
But it seems Contador remains the main threat: “Alberto is a fantastic bike rider and Bjarne Riis as a manager knows what it takes to win the Tour de France.”