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Evans Endures for le Tour Victory

So the Tour de France 2011 is history, and it came down to the last three days of racing to finally determine a winner. Cadel Evans, who held off Frank and Andy Shleck through the mountains of the Pyrenees and the Alps, won with an overpowering performance in Saturday’s individual time trial.

Tour stalwart George Hincapie (r) was part of Cadel Evans' powerful BMC team. (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images Europe)

Evans has been trying to win le Tour since he entered in 2005 and had developed a reputation for not being assertive enough to compete at the highest level. He came in eighth in that first race, sixth in 2006 and second to Contador in 2007 and Carlos Sastre in 2008. After finishing 30th in 2009, he joined the American BMC team, and last year finished 26th after fracturing an elbow while grabbing the yellow jersey in Stage 9.

This win has to be especially satisfying for the 34 year-old Australian, and his hell-bent-for-leather dash around Grenoble in the time trial should finally silence critics who say Evans isn’t tough or aggressive enough to win the tour. In BMC, Evans found a team that, like those Armstrong created for his later victories (all of whom targeted Evans as a possible winner), steered him out of trouble through three weeks of racing.

Excepting a couple of mechanical problems, Evans was the most attentive member of the climbing elite, fending off attacks or saving his strength to catch up later and finally putting his distinctive mark on the time trial to win decisively. I think my favorite moment of the tour was when Andy Schleck asked Evans to help pick up the pace on the infamous slopes of Alpe d’Huez, and he shook his head as if to say, “tell your brother to get up front.” Evans was the smartest racer out there, and he won through endurance and, finally, through brute strength in the time trial.

If anything, he showed Andy Schleck — who came in second for the third time in as many years — that to win, you must ride a high-end time trial. The last winners — Lance Armstrong, Contador, Carlos Sastre and now Evans — are all better-than-average trialists. Schleck, a riveting performer with a keen natural skill and uncanny instincts in the high mountains, like Evans, had a strong team helping him avoid the nervous crashes and broken bones  that dominated the first couple of weeks’ news.

Schleck, like Evans, is criticized for not being aggressive enough, but he showed great determination when he took control of the entire race on Stage 18 with a nasty attack 60 kilometers from the finish. But once again he failed as he failed twice against Contador, fading to 17th in the time trial, almost two and a half minutes behind Evans’ time. He’s only 26, but he’ll have to rethink this part of his strategy to win. And I’m sure he and brother Frank, a formidable contender himself, will be back next year, hopefully with a smarter game plan.

Alberto Contador lost the tour on the first day because he was too far back in the peleton and got caught behind a multi-bike crash, losing 1:20 to the other contenders, a cardinal sin for anyone seriously trying to win this race. Falling off his bike at least four times, once when his handlebars got caught in Vladimir Karpets’ seat post and Karpets shouldered him off the road and straining a swollen right knee, didn’t help his cause, either.

But he stayed even with all the other leaders and kept up when no one attacked in the Pyrenees. It was too late, but he attacked early on Stage 19, and though he cracked near the top of Alpe d’Huez, he showed that he could still play with the best of them, and Saturday he came in behind only winner Tony Martin and Evans in the time trial. Next year, he has already said, he will skip the Giro (which he won this year without breaking a sweat, though his participation might have contributed to his early lethargy) and concentrate on le tour. If he isn’t suspended for his clenbuterol positive in last year’s tour (we’ll find out in November now), the cagiest rider out there will once again be a serious threat to Evans and the Schlecks,

Like anyone who watched, I can’t say enough for the inspired race that Tom Voeckler rode. Against all odds, even is own, he stayed in the yellow jersey through the Pyrenees, even on days when he had announced he would lose it, and into the Alps. While the other leaders were playing mind games, Voeckler was providing the kind of drama that keeps us tour addicts pinned to our televisions.

As the Science of Sport website notes, the times for the Alpe d’Huez climb were more consistent with pre-doping times, and only one positive drug test so far this year. (Fingers crossed that nothing shows up later.)

Mark Cavendish, the best sprinter who is also on the best lead-out sprint team I’ve ever seen at HTC-High Road, was a marvel to watch, but it appears the team might be broken up after HTC ends its sponsorship this year. And it was really good to see former frustrated teammate Andre Greipel steal an early stage from Cavendish for himself. Thor Hushvod proved once again to be an opportunistic rider who helped himself to two stages no one expected him to even contend for, one in which he was timed descending a mountain at 69 miles per hour! Special kudos to Johnny Hoogerland and Juan Antonio Flecha for finishing the race after a horrifying incident in which, while they were leaders of the stage, they were sideswiped by a camera car.

As for contenders next year, I was especially impressed with young rider Pierre Rolland, who won the climb to Alpe d’Huez, Tejay van Garderen, who excelled in the early stages, and Samuel Sanchez, who seemed to be right there with the leaders much of the time in the high mountains and finished seventh in the time trial. I’m certainly glad to get my life back after three weeks of insanity, but I can’t wait to see what happens next year, or the upcoming Pro Cycling Challenge here in Colorado next month, for that matter.


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