Cadel Evans looks more at home at this Giro d’Italia than he’s ever looked in a grand tour. The 33-year-old Australian swapped his world champion’s jersey for the maglia rosa after avoiding the crashes on Sunday.
At the post-race press conference he switched seamlessly between Italian and English, answering the questions in one language and then providing the translation. It was then that it sank in, perhaps this was the grand tour best suited to him all along.
After all, Evans is married to an Italian, Chiara, and he lives in Stabio, in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, close to the border just five kilometres from Mendrisio, where he won the world championships last September.
This is only the second time Evans has ridden the Giro. The experience of eight years ago could have scarred him for life.
That year the race also started in the Netherlands, in Groningen. Evans was a 25-year-old with the Mapei team, embarking on his first grand tour after switching to the road following a successful career as a mountain biker.
His results in 2002 had been good. Tenth at Paris-Nice, third in the Settimana Coppi e Bartali, sixth at the Tour of the Basque Country and third in the Tour of Romandy.
So by the time he got to the Giro, he was less of an unknown quantity, although no one expected him to take the lead deep in the third week. He’d been second overall behind Jens Heppner, who gained a lot of time in a big break at the end of the first week. But stage 16 was a brute, the most mountainous of the race, with four big climbs including the Passo Pordoi - the Cima Coppi, the highest pass of the race.
Everyone expected the rookie rider to fall back but he held on and by the end of the day he had the pink jersey by 16 seconds, from Dario Frigo. There were just four stages remaining, including one in the mountains and a time trial.
The following day, Evans suffered one of the biggest collapses in recent history, the equivalent of a cricket team losing eight wickets in the last hour’s play. Having hung in with the dangermen for most of the 222-kilometre stage, battling the heat and humidity all the way, he cracked nine kilometres from the summit of the final climb, the Folgario Passo Coé. In those nine painful kilometres he lost more than 15 minutes. Every pedal stroke looked like agony and at the top, he was so exhausted he barely realised he’d crossed the finish line.
There followed two disastrous years with the Telekom team before a string of top ten finishes convinced Evans and his management that the Tour de France was the race for him. In 2008, he came closest to victory while appearing to crack under the strain. Who can forget the prickly exchanges with the television camera crews and journalists after the stages. The yellow jersey seemed to weigh heavily on his shoulders.
Evans has not been the easiest rider for the fans to love. His nickname – ‘Cuddles’ - is laced with irony. He has, in the past, been criticised for following wheels and racing negatively but his counter-argument was straightforward. He was doing the best he could at any given time. He only followed wheels because he had to. His attacks weren’t electrifying but not because he wasn’t trying. People began to warm to him when he suffered the dreadful misfortune of an ill-timed puncture when poised to strike in last year’s Vuelta a Espana. The victory at the world championships came with an attack that suggested he’d been waiting his entire career to launch it and it was the perfect riposte to his critics.
This Giro d’Italia represents his best chance to win a grand tour. Even if he’s in peak form at the Tour de France, the 34-year-old will struggle against Alberto Contador. Perhaps that’s why he looked so at home in the pink jersey.
The race has started well for him, with a very solid time trial. He was smart enough to avoid the worst of the crashes on Sunday and make the right side of the splits on Monday to show that he’s got the presence of mind as well the physical strength that a contender needs.
His BMC team, already down one man after Martin Kohler crashed out on Sunday, will not be one of the strongest in Wednesday’s team time trial, one suspects, but Evans is in a good position anyway. Last year, his Tour challenge began to come undone when Silence-Lotto fell apart in the team time trial at Montpellier but the stage will not be as decisive here because the course is straightforward and the mountains will have the biggest say.
However, he knows to his cost how important time gains and losses can turn out.
“I’m a rider who lost the Tour by 23 seconds,” he said. “I definitely prefer to be ahead with some advantage now than the opposite.”
There was a playful edge to some of his answers but this was a world away from the stressed out Evans who seemed on the edge at times during the 2008 Tour de France. When asked what had changed since late last summer, which has brought a string of high-profile wins, including the world title and Flèche Wallonne, Evans said: “I did win races before the Worlds, by the way, but that gets conveniently forgotten about.
“If I can make a self-analysis, I think that changing teams has made the difference. I still have the same coach [Aldo Sassi], and I work with the same people but the team is the biggest chance and I am happy here. We’re working very well together.
“Having the jersey at the beginning of the race, is different to having it at the end, like eight years ago, but we all know what happened then. I’d love to have the jersey for a while but it’s what happens at the end of the race that counts. It’s about seconds now, but in three weeks’ time it’ll be about minutes.”
For Evans, this Giro represents a great chance to win a grand tour. It could be a case of now or never.
Giro d’Italia 2010: Cycling Weekly’s coverage index
2010 Giro d’Italia coverage in association with Zipvit