Cadel Evans’ victory in the Tour de France marked a new era for cycling in Australia, according to Kieran Pender.
Australian cycling can be divided into two distinct periods: BC and AC.
For nearly a century, starting with the initial participation of Australians in the 1914 Tour de France, no one from the country had emerged victorious in this most prestigious of cycling competitions. However, as the number of Australian riders increased in the 1980s and beyond, other longstanding achievements began to be surpassed.
In 1982, Phil Anderson became the first Australian to win a stage and also wore the coveted yellow jersey twice during the race. During the early 2000s, Robbie McEwen led a successful group of Australian sprinters, earning three green jerseys while fellow Australian Baden Cooke also took home one in the points classification.
By 2010, a complete group of Australians were participating in the three-week long race every year. However, despite their efforts, the Australian team had yet to achieve the overall victory and the chance to wear the yellow jersey on the Champs-Élysées after the final stage.
In 2011, Cadel Evans made a significant impact. His victory in the yellow jersey marked a defining moment for Australian cycling, separating it into two eras: Before Cadel and After Cadel. This marked the start of a successful period, starting with an impressive individual time trial on the second to last stage in Grenoble.
Evans, a champion mountain biker in his youth who later switched to the road, had come close before. In his debut tour in 2005 the Australian finished eighth; a year later he was just off the podium in fourth. Two runner-up results followed, in 2007 and 2008, before disappointing performances in subsequent years.
The beginning of 2011 had a distinct feeling. Evans, the reigning world champion, placed second in the first stage and later won his third career stage a few days after. He stayed in the running for the general classification in the first week, then the second, and early on in the third. He was close to getting the yellow jersey.
However, during stage 18, things took a turn for the worse for Evans’ campaign. The tired group of riders were up against the daunting Col du Galibier, the highest finish of the stage. About 60km away from the finish line, one of Evans’ competitors in the general classification, Andy Schleck, launched an attack on the Col d’Izoard in hopes of securing a significant lead and claiming the yellow jersey. This was a strategic move to gain enough time before the final mountain stage and penultimate day time trial (the last stage in Paris is more of a ceremonial ride for the general classification contenders, with no time differences being made).
There was a sense of deja vu. Twice before Evans had not quite been able to make up the general classification gap during the last time trial. As Schleck extended his virtual lead, the seconds Evans would need to make up in the race against the clock in Grenoble ticked upwards.
The group of cyclists argued about who would take on the responsibility of catching up. However, as they approached the Galibier with less than 10 kilometers left, Evans took control at the head of the chasing pack and started to push hard. Every second gained against Schleck would have a significant impact two days later. The fate of the yellow jersey was at stake.
“Even though there was a lot of panic,” Evans remembered ten years later on the Detour podcast, “I had to remain calm and focus on the task at hand. My years of experience really came into play during that final climb, as I pushed myself to maintain the fastest pace possible.”
The pursuit was an impressive feat accomplished mostly on his own; ultimately, Evans finished two minutes behind Schleck but remained only a minute behind in the overall rankings. He encountered a potential mechanical issue the following day but overcame it before dominating Schleck in the time trial in Grenoble. This allowed him to surpass the gap and secure victory in the Tour de France by a margin of over 90 seconds.
The cycling scene in Australia underwent a significant transformation – before Christ, after Christ.
Cadel is widely recognized and doesn’t require an introduction. He has gained nationwide fame just by his first name. As someone who was inspired by watching the Tour de France on SBS, Evans’ victory made the three-week race a must-watch event for millions of Australians every year.
In the past two years, Jai Hindley achieved the remarkable feat of becoming the second Australian cyclist to win a Grand Tour, following in the footsteps of Evans. He has shared that Evans’ victory during his childhood served as a source of motivation, and that the retired cycling legend has been a valuable mentor to him.
Similarly to Evans, other notable Australian cyclists have also made significant contributions to the sport, such as Sir Hubert Opperman and Russell Mockridge in the early days, followed by a new wave of riders in the 1980s including Anderson, Allan Peiper, and Neil Stephens. More recent stars from the early 2000s have also left their mark. The current generation continues to build upon this rich legacy, with Caleb Ewan’s numerous stage wins in Grand Tours, Richie Porte’s podium finish in the 2020 Tour de France, and Jai Hindley’s impressive performances. However, Evans’ achievement of winning the yellow jersey in the Tour de France will always be a defining moment for Australian cycling, as he became the first Australian to win a Grand Tour and only the second non-European to win the prestigious race.
Following his stage 20 time trial, Evans was filled with disbelief after taking the yellow jersey from Schleck. He repeatedly exclaimed, “I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it.” The unimaginable had become a reality, fulfilling the dreams of exhausted fans in a moment. This marked a significant change for Australian cycling.