To the hard-core cycling fan, the face that appeared one day in Hendry Cycles in Ocean Grove, south of Geelong, would have looked familiar. But most of the customers in the shop that day three-and-a-half years ago were families and novice cyclists who wouldn’t have recognised Lance Armstrong if he’d walked in decked out in his Discovery Channel outfit and wearing a yellow jersey.
The face, in fact, belonged to Cadel Evans, who had just moved into the neighbouring town of Barwon Heads and was looking for a regular cycling group to join.
The same Cadel Evans who was Australia’s leading mountain biker as a junior and now lies in second place in cycling’s greatest race, the Tour de France, after the sensational sacking overnight of race leader Michael Rasmussen by his own Rabobank team for lying.
The Australian now trails new leader, Spaniard Alberto Contador, by less than two minutes.
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Evans geared up for this year’s race, and the past three, by riding along the beach road between Barwon Heads and Anglesea and Airey’s Inlet with a group of social riders from Hendry’s.
When, one by one, they invariably peel off, exhausted, Evans powers on around the coast, often on round trips of more than 150 or 200kms, leaving the bedraggled riders to find their way home.
In one of those early sessions, a local 17-year-old boy, who fancied himself as a young Armstrong in the making, tailed in Evans’ slipstream as they battled into a strong westerly wind. He enjoyed having the older man doing all the hard work into the gale.
The trouble was, he hadn’t been told who the older man was. The boy bravely stayed behind Evans until, at Anglesea, he realised he had gone past the point of no return. His legs reduced to jelly, he had to ring up his mum and ask her to pick him up.
But the beach road is hardly ideal Tour de France terrain because it’s so flat. Evans’ hill training is done behind Lorne, at the foothills of the Otway Ranges, where he does multiple climbs up a 15-kilometre route through the hills.
On Sundays, he really gets social, pedalling around at a snail’s pace with a group of blokes aged between 18 and 60. There’s a therapist with the Australian Ballet Company, the holiday home repair guy, the local solicitor, the chief of the Barwon Coast committee and many other sizes and shapes in between.
They will then stop at a café in Barwon Heads and have a coffee, the unassuming Evans blending in just like any other regular guy. Warmed up by this very light session, he’ll then head out for his main training later in the day.
This is how Australia’s greatest hope in a Tour de France trains and lives his life in between those helter-skelter months when he is cycling in the European summer with his Predictor Lotto team.
The manager of Hendry Cycles, Steven Draper, actually raced against Evans as a junior cross-country mountain biker and was as surprised as anyone when he saw Evans walk into his shop. He was the one person who did recognise him and soon helped set Evans up with the local riding group.
As Draper sees it, life in the sleepy hamlet of Barwon Heads – which Evans shares with his Italian wife, who can often be seen out training with him (on a motorbike) – is the perfect antidote to the high-pressure road racing scene in Europe.”
“It’s a yin and yang thing,” said Draper.
“Here, he can get some equilibrium back into his life. Those social sessions on Sundays, for example, he enjoys immensely. After soccer, cycling is the biggest sport in Europe and when he is over there, he’s in huge demand. He leads a very hectic life.”
In Europe, Evans is recognised virtually everywhere he goes. Not so in Barwon Heads or Ocean Grove.
“He was outside the shop the other day and an old woman walked past. She looked at his racing bike and all his gear and said: ‘you look like you do a bit of cycling’. As though he’d just been given a new Christmas present. It was quite funny.”
Evans has become something of a local hero in the area and, before last year’s race, the bridge spanning the Barwon River between the two towns was daubed with large painted white letters: Go Cadel.
The expulsion of Rasmussen, Cristiano Moreni – who also exited overnight after failing a drugs test – and Alexandre Vinokourov, who was thrown out on Tuesday, has again cast a dark pall over the Tour. But if Barwon Heads’ favourite son can lead the way down the Champs Elysees on Sunday, that will matter not a jot to the Bellarine Peninsula cycling brigade.
For it will give them a story to tell their grandchildren (and many others besides): how I helped train Australia’s first Tour de France winner.