seemed as if Andy Schleck had lost 15 seconds to Cadel Evans by the time he reached the bottom of the ramp at the start of last Saturday's decisive time trial in the Tour de France. In truth, the suspense lasted a bit longer than that. Maybe five minutes longer.
Evans, a 34-year-old Australian riding for BMC, needed to make up 57 seconds on Schleck to take the yellow jersey off the back of the lanky Luxembourger. He made up a lot more: The man whose prickly relations with reporters had earned him the nickname Cuddles demolished the leader of the Leopard-Trek team, powering around the 26.4-mile course in 55:40—a full 2:31 faster than Schleck. In so doing, Evans became the first Aussie to win this 108-year-old race and the oldest rider to top the podium in 89 years.
Evans is a converted mountain biker with a rare combination of climbing ability and time-trial chops. After finishing second in the 2007 and '08 Tours, he slipped to 30th in '09. Last season, his first with the BMC team, he rode with a fractured elbow and finished 26th. His time, it seemed, had passed.
This year Evans was aided by a beefed-up BMC roster. As a cyclist with a reputation for riding clean, he also seemed to benefit from his sport's recently stepped-up efforts to root out doping in the peloton. Criticized earlier in his career for riding defensively, Evans was much more aggressive and opportunistic. After a series of futile attacks by defending Tour champion Alberto Contador in stage 16 on July 19, Evans surged on a medium-sized mountain called the Col de Manse. Schleck, then in fourth place, was taken by surprise—not to mention intimidated by the rain-slick technical descent to the finish—and lost 69 seconds to the Australian.
Schleck, to his credit, took that time back with a daring attack on the Col d'Izoard in stage 18 last Thursday. But then Evans, after trailing Schleck by 4:08 at one point, clawed back nearly half that time, leaving Schleck 57 seconds behind.
Laboring to respond to another Contador attack during Friday's stage 19, which ended atop the storied Alpe d'Huez, Evans realized that his back tire was rubbing against his bike frame. After changing bikes, he spent 40 miles leading the pursuit of Contador and Schleck, who'd joined the attack. Incredibly, Evans latched onto the escapees near the base of the Alpe, losing no time to Schleck.
And on Sunday, a day after making mincemeat of his rival in the stage 20 time trial, Evans blinked back tears on the podium as his nation's flag was raised over the Champs-Élysées. Fellow Aussies waved signs (CRIKEY, CADEL!) and inflatable kangaroos and belted out the national anthem. One verse must have resonated for the victor:
In history's page, let every stage/Advance Australia fair.
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For more from Austin Murphy on the 2011 Tour de France, go to SI.com/cycling