An interview with Cadel Evans

Earlier this year, mountain bike racer Cadel Evans told his fans he had no plans to switch to the road. But a few weeks ago he signed for Mapei. Karen Forman found out why.

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In sunny Melbourne
Photo: © Karen Forman

Never say never - because you never know what could be around the next bend.

That's a lesson Australian mountain bike champion Cadel Evans is learning as official word of his appointment this month to Italian trade team Mapei - as a road racer - spreads through the international cycling community.

Not six months ago, the 24 year old Melburnian told his fans on his web site that, despite his increasing success on the road (and a heck of a lot of rumors to the contrary), he did not intend to become a full-time road rider.

"I have no plans to switch to the road full time," he said in his June 21 diary. Yet he didn't entirely discount it as a possibility for the future.

"If a good opportunity, that is an opportunity to fulfill my maximum potential as a road rider… came my way in future, yes, I would be very interested in focusing on pursuing a road career at some point in the future."

Well, the future came sooner rather than later. The rider many people say is the first Australian since Phil Anderson with the potential to snag a Grand Tour has put his mountain bike on career on hold for "at least a year" so he can explore his future as a roadie on one of the most awarded European teams.

He certainly seems to have chosen the right team to do it with. Sponsored by a Milan-based world-leading multi-national company which specializes in adhesives and chemical products for the building industry, the Mapei racing team holds the record for the highest number of successes in a season, with 95, in 1997. (There were 45 in 2001). The company became the main sponsor of the Professional Cyclism Team in May 1993 and now, due to its support of the sport and its teams' success, is a household name among cycling fans.

Interestingly, Evans will not be the only mountain biker on the team. Mapei announced on December 19 that Sydney 2000 Olympic Mountain Bike Champion Miguel Martinez had signed an agreement allowing his road debut with Mapei this year.

But unlike Evans, who says he will now make road his priority, Martinez has a calendar which will allow him to contest European mountain bike World Cup races and the World Championship, wearing his Full Dynamix jersey, as well.

At home in Australia

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With girlfriend Annie
Photo: © Karen Forman

We caught up with Evans in Melbourne, where he is visiting with his Mum Helen Cocks on the family farm over Christmas and preparing to contest the Tour Down Under and some Skilled Bay Classic events before heading off to join his new team for the 2002 season.

Because of his commitments on the domestic scene, he was given special "absent with justification" status for missing the first pre-seasonal meeting of Mapei Quick Step riders, managers and members of the staff of in Arona in early December, even though the team, in a media release on its web site suggested it would be a very important occasion for the integration with the new riders of the team.

Relaxing by the bank of the Yarra River with French-Canadian girlfriend Annie, a fellow bike rider (and that's all the information we get on this subject!), Evans finally confirmed to what many had been speculating upon - that mountain biking would be taking a backseat to road racing in 2002 and that yes, he hopes to win the Tour de France.

"I'd say mountain bike racing is on hold for at least a year," he said.

"If things are crossing over okay, maybe I can look at (doing both road racing and mountain bike racing in) Athens, but for now, yes, I am concentrating on the road. I want to do the big tours."

Although some people have expressed surprise at what they consider is a "sudden" move to the road, both Evans and his longtime coach Damien Grundy say road racing has been an important part of his agenda for some time.

It just wasn't, when given the choice between it and mountain bike racing, his priority. Until now.

Racing roots

Born in Katherine, Northern Territory, but for the most part raised in Melbourne, Evans was 14 years old when he started cycling on a mountain bike "because it looked like fun" - and started dreaming of riding the Tour de France - a road race.

He joined the Fat Tyre Fliers Mountain Bike Club at 15, but also began to race on the road - due in part to Grundy, whom he had met in a bike shop and asked to train him.

Later appointed as Australian Institute of Sport MTB coach, Grundy had come from a road background, and believed road racing provided important training for mountain bike riders. But he says he always encouraged his riders to race on the road not just to compete - but to win - which is what Evans has done over and over again.

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Racing in the 2001 World's
Photo: © Beth Seliga

Still, it was mountain bike racing that had caught Evans' attention and in 1995, his first year out of high school, he took up a full Australian Institute of Sport scholarship on the MTB squad.

"I had two career options at the time," he said. "I wanted to be a pro bike rider or a television camera operator. Then I got the scholarship and I was on my way to the first option."

He went overseas with the squad for five months in his first year to race MTB World Cups and national races in the United States and do altitude training Europe. Meanwhile, he contested the road World's in San Marino as a junior, came third in the time trial and crashed in the road race, but started thinking that maybe the road might be an option one day.

Living and training with the national team was an interesting experience, he said, learning to be with people of different motivations and personalities.

"I really liked the travel aspect of it. To me that was part of being a pro rider and living the lifestyle," he said.

"I remember when I was at school telling my mother how much I hated French and would never want to go to France, but now I live in a French part of Switzerland with a French speaking girlfriend and can get by in French!"

Although he was technically a junior, Evans was racing senior World Cups, and racing them well. The following year he scored a contract with Diamondback. Although still based in Australia and continuing on his AIS scholarship, he raced two years with them, travelling long distances to races and "living out of a suitcase".

He was ninth in the MTB event at the Atlanta Olympics which was "okay I suppose", had a podium finish in the Mt Vermont World Cup and a bronze medal in the under 23 World Championships.

In 1997 he won two World Cup events and was leading the series but missed the final races because his team sent him to another national race in the US (which he won but says it wasn't quite the same as winning the World Cup).

By this stage Evans was keen to move on to a bigger team and was picked up by the US-based Volvo-Cannondale.

Living in Europe

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On the way to winning the Tour of Austria
Photo: © AFP

Meanwhile, he decided living out of a suitcase and travelling to and from Australia was too difficult and rented an apartment in Neuchatel (between Zurich and Geneva) in Switzerland, where his manager lives. With his Mapei commitments in Europe, he expects to be living there for up to 10 months of the year.

Still, it wasn't all about mountain bike racing. "Mountain bike racing was more travel and training - only about 35 races a year, whereas I was doing about 40 days of road racing a year," he said.

Slowly, the road side of things was creeping to prominence in the Cadel Evans calendar. He was also racing with the under 23 Australian national road ream.

In 1999, Evans rode as a stagiaire (which he describes as a bit like work experience) with Saeco, the Cannondale-sponsored road team. He didn't race the road at all in 2000 due to injury, but in 2001 took up a pro-license with Saeco.

His results speak for themselves - he won five races on the road including the mountainous Tour of Austria (one stage and overall) and the Brixia Tour in Lombardia (overall and points). As well, there was the invitation-only uphill time trial A'Travers Lausanne in Switzerland (where he beat Tour de France hero Lance Armstrong).

But at the same time, his mountain bike results were flowing in as well.

All in all, in four years with the Volvo-Cannondale team, he won six World Cup events and two overall World Cup titles, two silver medals at the World Championships and a couple of US national series wins, just to name some.

Although he always thought of road racing as being complementary to mountain bike racing and something he was continuing to develop for "one day", it was mountain biking that was top priority.

So, what changed? What has enticed Cadel Lee Evans away from his beloved mountain bike racing - and his US-based Volvo-Cannondale MTB team?

The answer, of course, is a coveted spot with Mapei, who he now admits approached him while he was at the road worlds in Lisbon, Portugal, in mid-October.

"They wanted a young rider to develop as a tour rider and I was looking for a well resourced big team to develop my potential on the road," he said. "It just happened."

The result, after some contractual wrangling with his old team - which he says "you had better speak to my manager about" - was a two-year contract with the Mapei cycling team.

And, considering Mapei announced on October 31 that it would be reducing the amount of cyclists to 25-28 racers in line with new International Cycling Union regulations requiring teams to have a maximum of just 25 racers by 2003, it's quite a feather in the cap for the young Australian.

Not a sudden move

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Before the Japan Cup
Photo: © Miwako Sasaki

Grundy, his mountain bike coach who will continue to coach him into the big league of road racing, says he is not at all surprised that a big team has picked him up.

"He wins big races, he reads races really well… he's extraordinarily good at winning races. He has only had one race on the road where he has finished outside the top 10," he says.

"He might have been concentrating on mountain bike racing, but he goes into every road race with the intention of winning. Like Brixia and the Tour of Austria - both races, when we discussed them, we prepared to win them. It's not like he went there and said we'll see what happens. We looked at the profiles of the events and worked out what we thought would be the critical stages, and gave him the preparation and opportunity to win the event."

Grundy says he finds amusing the perception that Evans' move to top level road racing has happened suddenly.

"He has been racing on the road since the time I started with him when he was 14. I had come from a road racing background and saw it as an important tool to develop MTB ability. So right from that stage I encouraged him to race on the road, but only if he was going to treat it as a serious competition . He had to go with a goal to do as well as he could and to win the races."

It had became pretty obvious to Grundy that he had an exceptionally talented cyclist on his hands.

"He has placed in the top couple in Australia in juniors, won a medal as a road time trialist as a junior, as an under 23 road rider finished second in a World Cup, and then he has spent time with the Australian road program in Italy and doing some racing there, always placing very well," he says.

"For him events like the Tour de France, the Tour of Italy and major races over hilly circuits have got to be attractive."

"And to win the Tour de France in a cycling sense is as big as winning any gold medal at the Olympics… the biggest world events. People ask me if I think he can win… and there is no doubt in my mind he has a good chance of winning."

"There aren't many riders you can stay that about. I am not blind to the fact that it is an extremely difficult task but he is talented, focussed, dedicated, pretty strong in every way he needs to be. There is only one weak link in his armory of road racing and that is a big bunch sprint. It is very unlikely he will ever win consistently in big bunch sprints. You need to be able to climb, which Cadel can do; time trial which he can do; read a race, which he can do; and then have the team around him which would appear in the future he will have. "

Comparing Evans to fellow mountain bike racer Martinez, Grundy says: "I don't think Martinez has got what Cadel has for road racing. Certainly he doesn't come to the team with any of the clear indicators to be in that environment but all the same look at his record of mountain bike events, the guy is just incredible."

Evans, however, isn't under too many illusions about what to expect his first year.

"People seem to expect that I will do really well, but I think the first year will be about learning and racing," he said. "No-one knows how I will go till I go and do it. What I do know is that mountain bike racing helps you with the steep climbs and the strength aspect of road racing."

He's unsure of his program for the year.

"I will be doing the Giro (Tour of Italy) and I will be doing the Tour de France - but who knows when?"

He doesn't think he will miss the mountain bike too much.

"This year I have actually enjoyed the road racing more. It is less stressful, more relaxed," he said. "I think as I have gotten older I have become more physically and mentally suited to road racing. I prefer hilly stage races.

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Looking relaxed
Photo: © Karen Forman

Evans admitted to being a little anxious as well as excited about the new challenge ahead, but is grateful to have the support of Grundy behind him.

It's a new challenge for Grundy, too. "I come from a road racing background… never anything like this level, though," he says. "It's exciting for me. Very exciting and very challenging. We've done the mountain biking. We know what he's capable of, what he's going to do. He's based in Switzerland, I am in Melbourne. Hopefully I can get over to Europe at certain times of the year to see what he's doing. Bit of a consultative relationship. I'm not dictating to him how to tie his shoelaces, I give him feedback, he puts it into action."

As Evans himself says, "time will tell". With that, he donned his Sydney 2000 Olympics jacket, took Annie by the hand and headed off into a new future as a road racer. Perhaps a Tour de France-winning one.

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