PARIS, (Reuters) – Cadel Evans might not be the most sparkling rider, yet he won the most spectacular Tour de France in years.
Evans barely attacked during the three-week competition but his resilience, combined with Alberto Contador’s failure and the Schleck brothers’ errors, allowed him to become the first Australian to win the most famous cycling race.
Although fully deserved, Evans’s triumph has a transitional feel. The BMC rider is, at 34 years and five months, the oldest cyclist to win the Tour since 1923 and is highly unlikely to start a long-term reign.
Knowing it was one of his last chances to win the Tour after two runner-up finishes in 2007 and 2008, the 2009 world champion left nothing to chance.
“We rode every stage like a one-day race, as if it were the last stage,” his BMC team manager John Lelangue said.
In a tricky first week, BMC, with classics riders such as George Hincapie and Manuel Quinziato used to jostling for position in the peloton, were often riding in front of the pack to protect their leader from potential crashes and Evans escaped unhurt.
“We were often criticised for pulling the pack but we wanted to be in front to stay safe,” Lelangue explained.
Despite the most miserable weather on the Tour de France in years, Evans managed to stay safe throughout while several outside contenders such as Belgian Jurgen van den Broeck and Briton Bradley Wiggins crashed out early in the race.
Kazakh Alexandre Vinokourov’s career ended in a ditch in one of many massive pile-ups to mar the Tour and concerns over the race’s safety threatened to overshadow the action.
Dutchman Johnny Hoogerland and Spain’s Juan Antonio Flecha were hit by a French TV car and although they escaped with bruises, the accident was waiting to happen.
“They’re definitely trying to make the racing look more spectacular for the spectators, and to the detriment of our safety at times,” Briton David Millar told Reuters before the incident.
“It’s the way it goes, the organisers push the limits until they pass them and we’re getting quite close to passing the limits of what is reasonable. I think there might need to be a rethink.”
The Schlecks, the first brothers to finish together on a Tour de France podium, also criticised the organisers by claiming some of the descents were too dangerous.
In one of them, Andy Schleck, who finished second overall behind Evans, lost over a minute to the Australian after taking no risks in the descent to La Rochette following a Contador attack.
Luxembourg’s Schleck, however, launched a long-range attack in the most gruelling Alpine stage to the Col du Galibier, powering away from the pack 60 kilometres from the finish and defying strong headwind to spring into contention
That move also sealed Contador’s fate.
The 28-year-old Spaniard — unbeaten since 2007 in three-week races — suffered a rare collapse two kilometres from the finish, losing almost four minutes to Schleck and two to Evans.
After holding back in the Alpe d’Huez stage, where Contador jumped away with Schleck almost 100 kilometres from the finish to salvage his pride, Evans trailed Andy by 57 seconds.
He easily overhauled the deficit with an impressive final time trial, a discipline Schleck never really mastered. The Luxembourg ride paid for his shortcomings as he finished second overall for the third year in succession.
“I’m only 26. I will be back and I will be back to win,” said Schleck, beaten by Contador in 2009 and 2010.
Contador, who came to the Tour exhausted and was hampered by a string of crashes early on, awaits a decision over a failed dope test last season.
If he does return to the world’s greatest cycle race, Andy Schleck and the others might struggle to surpass the Spaniard.