From the grandstand: A new sporting legend

26 July 2011

Written by: Ben Waterworth

We often overuse adjectives in the sports fraternity.

When we’re caught up in the moment, words such as ‘champion’, ‘legend’, ‘hero’ and ‘icon’ roll off the tongue ever so eloquently. They’re haphazardly tossed around, as if they were a beach ball being volleyed in Bay 13 of the MCG during a cricket match.

But never before have these terms been so appropriate.

Cadel Evans is now all of those adjectives.

It’s official – he’s a champion, a hero, an icon, a legend. He can now be placed into the same league as Sir Donald Bradman, Rod Laver, Ian Thorpe and Cathy Freeman – all Australian sporting legends.

In the early hours of Monday morning, Evans did what no Aussie had been able to accomplish before him – win the Tour de France.

Cycling’s annual pinnacle event is the quintessential sporting challenge. For three weeks, competitors battle the unforgiving and – at times – dangerous 3,600 kilometre course. It’s demanding both physically and mentally and it’s what separates boys from men.

The Tour is more than a bike race. It’s a prestigious narrative, accompanied by gorgeous scenery and humbling traditions. It’s poetry in motion.

In its 108-year history, 44 Australians had attempted to finish the Tour wearing the coveted yellow jersey. All failed. In fact, eight men couldn’t cope with some of the gruelling stages and never had the privilege to parade into Paris.

But not Cadel. Not our Cadel. He wouldn’t be denied a victory.

The 34-year-old’s triumph was one of the finest individual efforts by an Australian sportsman – ever. Greg Baum wrote in The Age on Monday, ‘if Cadel Evans’ victory is not the single most heroic Australian sporting accomplishment of all, it is at least the equal of any preceding it’.

Sleep-deprived Australians battled red eyes to watch Evans fight back tears as he was presented with the yellow jersey in the middle of Paris. It was a special moment that humbled the hearts of all who watched on.

However this wasn’t a race Evans won easily over 21 days. This was a race won over an entire lifetime, one filled with adversity but epitomised by sheer perseverance.

Prior to 2011, the quiet and unassuming cyclist had raced in six Tours. In his first two attempts, he finished eighth (2005) and fourth (2006). He then came agonisingly close in 2008 and 2009, finishing in second spot by less than a minute on both occasions.

Evans went into the 2009 Tour as the man to beat, but he buckled under the weight of expectation and subsequently slumped to finish 30th. Then a crash in the eighth stage of the 2010 Tour, which left him with a hairline fracture in his left elbow, meant he finished his campaign in a disappointing 26th.

But nothing was going to stand in the skinny champion’s way this time. Nothing at all.

Evans’ 2011 campaign was near-perfect. His preparation was faultless and everything seemed to go according to plan over the three-week event.

Clearly Evans’ finest moment came during the 20th-stage time trial on Saturday night.

Luxemburg’s Andy Schleck made a classy and well-timed move in the French alps during the previous stage. He overtook France’s Thomas Voeckler to shoot out to a commanding 57-second lead with two stages to go.

Cue miraculous Evans comeback.

The Australian pushed himself to his very limits and produced 42.5 kilometres of fine riding. Not only did he overhaul Schleck’s 57-second advantage, he shored up first-place by going a further 94 seconds ahead of Schleck – all without the help of his BMC teammates.

True champions perform when they’re exposed and vulnerable. True champions fight back from anywhere. True champions push themselves to the very limit.

Evans became a true champion. And his life changed forever.

Towards the end of the final stage in Paris, Evans was given a glass of champagne by non-riding members of his team in a car, knowing victory was his. And victory must never have tasted so sweet.

So can Evans win another Tour de France?

BMC’s chief sporting director John Lelangue believes so. Evans’ father Paul thinks he can. Renowned Australian cycling coach Dave Sanders reckons he can become a multiple Tour winner if he wants to.

Time will tell.

But for now, let’s reflect, rejoice and marvel at Cadel Evans – Australia’s newest sporting hero.

Welcome to the legends club, Cadel.

Ben Waterworth is a third-year Bachelor of Journalism student at La Trobe University and is upstart’s former sports editor. You can follow him on Twitter: @bjwaterworth