By Andrew Hood
What a year Cadel Evans has had.
His second place at the Tour de France made history as he became the first Australian to stand on the podium of cycling’s marquee race and he’s consistently been with the best from February all the way in to this weekend’s world championships, where he’ll line up as an outsider for gold on the Australian team in Stuttgart.
But as good as Evans’ season has been, it could have been even better – a lot better.
The Predictor-Lotto rider’s consistency was borderline great.
Just consider the following: Evans missed winning the Tour by 23 seconds and fell short of a spot on the final podium spot at the Vuelta a España by 10 seconds, a feat that would have made him the first rider since 2002 to claim podiums of two grand tours in the same season.
His string of second places didn’t stop at the Tour. He was also runner-up at Dauphiné Libéré, second in two Tour stages, two at the Vuelta as well as second at the Dauphiné’s “queen stage.” He’s also ranked second in the season-long ProTour series.
Evans admits that he’s fed up with being cycling’s bride’s maid.
“To come that close to winning the Tour is naturally a little frustrating,” Evans told VeloNews at last weekend’s Vuelta conclusion. “I’ve come second a lot this year. Not just the Vuelta, but at the Tour and the Dauphiné. I’ve had a lot of second places and it is a little frustrating.”
Although he enjoyed his best season ever since switching over from mountain biking in 2001, the 30-year-old admits 2007 was bittersweet season because he’s come so close to so many major victories.
“All in all, I’m happy with my season,” Evans said. “It’s been a long year and I’ve been a high level for a long time. I don’t see many riders who’ve had as good as results as I’ve had for the whole season. I’ve been a pretty good investment this year. I’ve given a lot this season.”
Evans took stock at the end of the Vuelta, where he started without any major ambitions beyond preparing for Sunday’s road race in Stuttgart.
Evans’ Vuelta plans changed dramatically after the hard climbing stage at Lagos de Covadonga, when he was able to stay close to eventual winner Denis Menchov. Close enough, in fact, that he went deeper than expected and entered the final four days of racing poised in third place overall.
Evans was ganged up on – a la Robert Millar in the 1985 Vuelta – as CSC and Euskaltel-Euskadi joined forces first to flick second-place rider Vladimir Efimkin (Caisse d’Epargne) on the stage to Ávila before Evans, who then climbed to second overall, became a target in the final summit finish at Abantos.
Evans hung on to third place just nine seconds of Samuel Sánchez and 47 seconds behind Carlos Sastre going into the final time trial at Collado Villalba. The next day, Sánchez took out enough time on Evans to move into third but Evans couldn’t take enough time out of Sastre to finish fourth overall.
“It was two teams riding against one person,” Evans said. “I am happy with the Vuelta. We came here without any expectations. When you’re so close to winning or so close to being on the podium and have it finish like and not quite make it, naturally it’s disappointing.”
Evans said he’s not sure if he’d ever race two grand tours at a high level again. Besides, his goals are clear for 2008.
“It’s all about the Tour for me,” he says. “Anything that happens after that is a bonus. There are always things you can improve. This year the team gave me a little more freedom and faith and that helped me ahead of the Tour.”
It’s likely that two key helpers – Chris Horner and Josep Jufre – will leave Predictor-Lotto while the team has signed Yaroslav Popovych (ex-Discovery Channel) to come on as a super domestique to help Evans set up the climbs.
Evans said he was not happy about Horner’s imminent departure (Horner was still trying to hammer out a deal in the last week of the Vuelta, but has been linked to a possible deal to Rock Racing for 2008).
“Chris is my right hand dude and I would hate to see him go,” Evans said. “I want to strengthen the team and I want to keep Horner, but the team seems to look at the bottom line.”
Coming into Stuttgart, Evans was unsure about his chances. He rode harder than he expected at the Vuelta and pulled out of Thursday’s elite men’s time trial race due to Vuelta fatigue in order to be as fresh as possible for Sunday.
And there’s still one more race and one more chance to end his second-place streak. Evans will race the Giro di Lombardia in mid-October and could still win the ProTour title, especially with leader Danilo Di Luca looking at a racing ban.
Maybe the ProTour title would be the perfect tonic for Evans’ almost season.