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GEELONG, Australia (VN) — Mother Nature did not bid Australia’s most successful road cyclist a fond farewell at the inaugural Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race (CEGORR), named after the retiring 2009 road world champion and 2011 Tour de France winner, but the estimated 75,000 supporters lining the wet and windy Victorian roads near his home in Barwon Heads certainly did on Sunday.
It marked the final time Australian fans could “Yell for Cadel,” as Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) now rides off into the sunset after finishing fifth in the debut classics-style, 174-kilometer race that bears his name.
“To end one phase of my life and to begin another, it is just fantastic,” the 37-year-old Evans said post-race.
“I have dedicated my life to this sport, I discovered the passion for cycling as a 14-year-old in the ’90s, and I have been a full-time professional for 20 years.
“For me, it is all about giving back to the sport that has given me so much over the years. I am forever grateful for this sport and anyone who ever supported me along this journey,” continued Evans, a two-time mountain bike world cup winner (1998, 1999) who turned to road cycling when he debuted with Saeco in 2001.
Evans was part of a group of eight leading riders to contest Sunday’s finish, with Belgium’s Gianni Meersman (Etixx-Quick-Step) sprinting to victory ahead of Australia’s Simon Clarke (Orica-GreenEdge) and Nathan Haas (Cannondale-Garmin).
“It was incredibly aggressive racing,” said Evans, a two-time Olympian and the first Australian to stand on the podium of all three grand tours. “I was happy to make the front group at first. It was almost like riding a world championship.”
Etixx would be thrilled with Meersman’s win, coupled with teammate Maxime Bouet’s claiming the king of the mountains jersey, after an unexpected shutout during last week’s six-stage Santos Tour Down Under in Adelaide that started the UCI WorldTour season.
“I’m really proud,” said Meersman, a 29-year-old classics specialist and 2012 Paris-Nice stage winner. “This is the first time [the race] has been organized so I’m really happy.
“[The course] was really hard, we had Belgium weather conditions so it worked for me. I really like short, steep climbs so it turned out to be a great race for the whole team.
“In the beginning it wasn’t easy, we had a lot of wind. When we arrived on the shorter loop course, I think most of the peloton was already on the limit.
“The team rode really well, I said I was feeling good and they trusted me, so I’m really happy I could finish it off.”
Fellow Aussies Clarke and Haas each heaped lavish praise on both Evans and the race itself.
“What a great race,” said Clarke, a former Tour and Vuelta a España stage winner. “Credit to all the organizations to get this race off the ground and create a legacy for Cadel, and he deserves it … what a champion.”
For Haas, who like Evans is a former mountain biker, both the race and the namesake made a significant impression.
“We expect a lot from athletes,” Haas told VeloNews. “People that read the paper and watch TV expect us to be approachable, funny, in-depth, and also expect us to win … and for a guy like Cadel he’s out-performed any Australian cyclist ever.
“As an Australian to see the sport grow as much as it has with Cadel’s input, we have a lot to be thankful for,” continued Haas, who finished second to Evans on the infamous Corkscrew on stage 3 at last year’s Tour Down Under. “It’s cool to be a part of the race as beautiful as this scenically, but at the same time I’ve been in a quite a few races now that I’ve had to say goodbye to people I’ve had a lot of respect for like David Zabriskie, Christian Vande Velde, and David Millar, and Robbie McEwen is another Aussie that did great things.
“But Cadel is the one that has influenced my life in an indirect manner personally, but very directly by what he has done in his career.”
As far as potential growth for the UCI 1.1 classified race, which also played host to a mass participation ride and an elite women’s component, Clarke was hesitant to endorse the race for WorldTour status but confident about its future success.
“It’s a tough one,” said Clarke referring to the possibility of the race making the jump to the WorldTour. “Management will have to make a decision on that should the UCI put it on the table.
“I know they have a minimum of a three-year project so let’s hope the next two years are as good as this one.”
Even Evans’ rival Richie Porte (Sky), who is widely considered Australia’s next big grand tour general classification contender, agrees with Clarke’s appraisal of the event.
“In years to come, they might change the course a little bit and go further down the coast, but I think this race should be here to stay,” Porte said. “We had a bit of everything — rain, hail, shine, and crosswinds. It was quite a nice circuit and was pretty hard.”
When asked about following in Evans’ historic footsteps, the projected pre-race favorite for the Giro d’Italia in May was quick to respond.
“Obviously, it would be nice to follow on from his legacy,” Porte said. “[The Giro] is certainly my plan and I think I’ve done everything so far to get myself there in top shape.”
Aaron S. Lee is a cycling and triathlon columnist for Eurosport and a guest contributor to VeloNews.