Tour de France 2011: It’s Evans!

At last. After a Grand Tour career characterised by near misses, misfortune and teams that either wouldn’t or simply couldn’t ride for him, Cadel Evans has won the race that many of us thought had slipped through his fingers for good. And it’s been the most memorable Tour de France for years.

This time last year, he seemed to be at a crossroads. He’d won La Flèche Wallonne but finished only 5th in the Giro – though he won both the points leader’s Maglia Rosso and that magnificent stage on the Strade Bianche. In the Tour, a fractured elbow sustained on the day he earned the Yellow Jersey put paid to his challenge. I thought his Grand Tour aspirations were over and his future lay in contesting the Classics (he’d be a major force).

Evans, though, has grit beyond measure. He was never going to give it up. He’s ridden excellently all year and arrived at the Tour in superb condition. These last three weeks he’s shown us so impressively the force, tenacity, race wisdom and desire of a champion; though he may not have the grace of a Coppi or the attacking flair of a Contador, Evans is somehow more human than either of these. We see in him so visibly the internal conflict that must be overcome to win a race of this stature. Be in no doubt, though, he really is a great athlete.

Evans won this Tour because he knew exactly how to ride it: at the front of the pack, every day, avoiding the crashes and splits that have cost him in the past. In so doing, he took a stage, two second places, two thirds and never finished outside the top six except on sprint stages or successful breakaway days. He didn’t give an inch to his rivals, but stole seconds at every opportunity – he raced with the awareness of a man who knows better than anyone the value of seconds in a Grand Tour.

Only once Andy Schleck seemed to have slipped from his grasp, but Evans gave a mighty demonstration of will on the slopes of the Galibier to bring the gap down. He set up his Tour win that day, breaking Contador and other powerful riders in the process. Even though it was Andy Schleck who rode into Yellow the following day at the top of Alpe d’Huez, it was Evans who – almost symbolically – led him over the line. Schleck must have known he couldn’t beat this man.

Evans is a racer through and through. More than any other rider this year (and I include the battling Voeckler and heroic Hoogerland), he’s embodied the grand ambition of the Tour’s founder, Henri Desgrange: “The perfect Tour is one in which only rider finishes.” One by one they fell by the wayside as Evans kept powering on; he marshalled his resources admirably. We’ve just watched one of the great racers of his generation ride the perfect Tour – and it’s been thrilling from start to finish. Chapeau!

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