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An interview with Cadel Evans, January 15, 2009
Don't let me be misunderstood
The Animals' classic of the same name applies to Cadel Evans. He was the name on everyone's lips ahead of last year's Tour de France, and events that transpired on and off the bike during those three weeks in July mean that he's still often spoken about, albeit a little bit differently. Cyclingnews' Daniel Benson finds out why the Australian is often misunderstood, despite being a soul whose intentions are good.
Is pro cycling like a school playground? In one corner you have the cool kids. The two Davids are trying to impress with their rolled up argyle socks and matching blazers. Behind the bike sheds you'll find tearaways Tyler and Floyd getting up to no good. And over there you have Lance chasing down the Italian exchange student for his lunch money.
But who is that on his own, kicking his heels in the dirt? Oh, that's the new Australian kid. No one really understands him and he's usually on his own.
Ditch the simile and harsh assessment of Australia's finest ever Tour de France contender. While most Aussies seem to have been embraced by the cycling media, there's no denying the perception that Cadel Evans just doesn't fit in. Even Michael Rogers, likeable but not top of the class for charisma, seems to coast along with a degree of popularity and respect with his three rainbow jerseys. And he's yet to crack the top five of a major tour.
Evans, on the other hand, is a misfit. If not with his peers then certainly with the press. Why so? It's partly because the press doesn't know how to read his character. The tabloid hacks are used to seeing the fist pumping of Leyton Hewitt on the tennis court or the brash cockiness of Aussie cricket - not a shy, withdrawn lad who flips between guarded remarks and fits of anger.
His dedication and hard work on the bike, and charity work for good causes off it almost pass by unnoticed. In the post-Lance era the press are not sure what to make of a Tour contender unless he's trying to win them over or comes out all guns blazing.
A Tour of many faces
During this year's Tour de France Evans was lambasted for not travelling on the Lotto team bus. Instead, he supposedly chose to shuttle in a bus with trusted beefcake-cum-bodyguard, Serge. Each morning the press waited nervously for the arrival of the supposed prima donna. The reality was different. "I wanted to be with my teammates but the Lotto management decided that I would be better on my own and that it would be safer that way. I disagreed but in the end it's their decision and they had their reasons."
Yet how do you defend head-butting cameramen, throwing your hands out and Youtube moments such as, "Step on my dog, I cut your head off"? It's hard to image Sastre, Vande Velde or Boonen reacting like that.
"I've seen that clip, but what you don't see is why that person gets in my way and what they didn't understand was that I had skin missing off the entire left hand side of my body and that every time someone touched me it was painful," begins Evans.
"There's an amount of disrespect you can tolerate but at certain points it's just too much. I'd just lost yellow and probably the Tour. Then I've got someone tapping me on the shoulder again and again. I think my response wasn't so bad, considering. I know it wasn't a perfect situation. The 'cut your head off' comment? That was a joke and people around me were laughing. The next minute journalists are writing that I meant it. What can I do?"
The Tour obviously means a lot to Evans. For a balanced view of his character it's worth watching the moment he stepped onto the podium to collect his first yellow jersey. The emotion was clear to see. Years of sacrifice, hard work and struggle all culminated in this one moment.
This was a rider who had spent the 2004 season hitting the tarmac repeatedly, breaking his collarbone three times. A rider who'd been publicly criticised by team leader Jan Ullrich, and who'd moved to a Belgian team of rag tags and helped transform them into a solid cohesive Tour unit. For a few seconds it must have seemed like perfect vindication.
And, lest we forget, Evans played a seminal part in the 2008 Tour despite losing. His teeth gritted, jersey seeping with blood (still days after his crash) as he chased Sastre was one of the most heroic displays of 2008, if not his career to date.
But there's more at play here. 'Cadel versus the media' is more than just a selection of Youtube videos. For some time now Cadel has become more and more removed from sections of the media. It's something that has increased since his rise to the top of the sport. There weren't such clashes when the Australian switched from tread tyres to smooth, or during his early days at Saeco, Mapei or Telekom. What's changed? The answer is simple - pressure.
Evans accepts that some of this comes with the territory, that being a sportsman at the top end of his field means certain obligations have to be met. "My only hope is that I'm portrayed accurately in the media. And when that doesn't happen it is unfortunate," he says diplomatically. "There are a lot of people in the industry [the media] that put their own interest as a priority. I'm completely different to how the English press portray me. They portray me in a negative light and manner.
"What are you supposed to do? Say no to interviews? implores Evans. "Can you understand from my point of view that I just don't want to talk to them? Yet I've still done at least 50 since being home in the last few weeks because I understand my responsibilities to cycling. Some sections of the media aren't aware of this because I don't do it for publicity."
Jean Francois Quenet, a well-respected journalist and long-term friend, says, "I think what we're seeing is the relationship between cyclists and journalists deteriorating. Cadel is a good example of that. Of course he doesn't enjoy media attention and he is sensitive, but some questions have been really pressing, and it makes him far more self-critical than he needs to be. Privately though, he's genuine and very friendly.
"The Cadel on YouTube, that's not the real him. That's someone with a fear of failure and it's unfair to judge a man's character on that."
Former teammate and room buddy at Lotto, Chris Horner, agrees. "He's easy to work for and riders on the team gave him a lot of respect. At Lotto I just had to deliver him to the final climb and let him loose. He expected you to do your job and you knew he'd give 110 percent in return," he says.
Now at Astana, Horner sat out last year's Tour but followed the race and his ex-leader's progress. "Cadel likes everything to be calm but he already places himself under pressure, so when added amount comes from outside, it probably doesn't help. Some riders thrive on that but for him the media was just pushing and pushing, almost demanding that he come out and say he would do this and that during the race.
"He likes to do his talking on the bike. It meant at times you didn't see Cadel's real personality. I've been on holidays with him, and even stayed at his in-laws. Yes, he's totally dedicated and the professional but he's also friendly, and that's not shown."
Written off too soon?
There's more to discuss than just this relationship with the press, though. After all, here's a rider who could yet become Australia's first ever Tour de France winner. Ask Evans when he lost the Tour and he'll probably point to Alpe d'Huez or the crash on stage nine.
He won't mention two episodes at the tail-end of 2007; Lotto inexcusably let Chris Horner jump ship to Astana while signing Yaroslav Popovych as a replacement.
On paper it was a sound investment - one was nearing the nadir of his career while the other should have been reaching his prime. But as Horner flourished and Popovych nose-dived, it became the worst transfer saga of the year. The sorry fact was Evans - the race favourite - didn't have a team good enough to do his talent and hard work justice. At key moments he was isolated while CSC had cards aplenty with Sastre and the brothers Schleck.
Pause for a second and imagine that Cadel had overturned the deficit in the final time trial to Saint Amand Montrond. How strange would it have looked with Lotto leading the peloton into Paris? You'd be correct in wondering where they had been for the previous three weeks.
"I certainly enjoyed having Popovych on the team and I know he was disappointed with his performance. But these things happen. I don't have anything against him going to Astana. At the beginning I fought tooth and nail to keep Chris. We still had a pretty good team and we have another for this year with Charly [Wegelius] and Thomas [Dekker]," Evans says.
For 2009 the Belgian team has looked to address its deficiencies. Bernhard Kohl's dirty disgrace and the move of Popovych to Astana aside, it looked to beef up the squad. Out go Robbie McEwen and Popo and in come Sebastian Lang, Wegelius and Dekker. They're no Astana, but it's starting to look like Cadel will finally have a team built solely around his needs.
"As a team we've come close in the last few years and for the budget we have, we provide good value for the sponsor. We've come second for the last two years, and we've been getting better and better. Our team is a bit different to Lance's team who he used to co-own. Lotto is a government-owned team so they have other priorities than just the Tour; they're also obliged to promote Belgian cycling at all levels."
At this stage, questions over whether the route suits him are almost irrelevant. Despite all the hype and conjecture, no one really knows how Prudhomme's 2009 route will pan out. What is certain is that Cadel won't start as the number one favourite. That honour will pass to Alberto Contador and his Astana cohorts.
It's something that may well suit the Australian down to the ground as the media centres its telescopic sights on another team bus. Evans can get back to being the underdog and stay at a distance from some of the pressure that engulfed him in 2008.
"Last year may have been my best chance to win the Tour [so far], but I had back luck, so we'll just have to wait and see what happens in 2009." This considered, it could be Cadel who is ruling the playground come July.
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Images by AFP Photo
Images by Roberto Bettini/www.bettiniphoto.net