For Australia’s greatest-ever road cyclist, this Grand Tour season marks his entry into a brave new world. For his compatriots it’s a time to step out beyond the shadows, but for the man himself, it’s a chance to experience a different side of the sport. Cadel Evans is riding past the finish line…
Cadel Evans watches as the peloton of the 98th Giro d’Italia rides away without him. It’s Wednesday, May 13, 2015 at the start of the fifth stage from La Spezia
This time one year ago Evans was still in the peloton, but instead of riding towards the overall win he had hoped for after a committed preparation to better his third of 2013, he was unknowingly approaching the moment of realisation that this would be the last Grand Tour of his career – and that retirement was closer than he had known.
That moment came after Stage 16 from Ponte de Legno to Val Martello. He had lost time on the descent of the Gavia battling snow, wind and, most significantly, his fear. As he told me the next night in an interview for the Sydney Morning Herald: ‘[I’m]thinking of my well-being. I’m really scared when I can’t see where I have to go.’
History shows the decision by Evans to retire was made soon after. He followed through at the end of a three-month ‘farewell’ in Australia after he raced in the Australian road championship in Buninyong, Victoria on January 11, the Tour Down Under from January 20-25, and then finally the inaugural 174km Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race in Geelong, Victoria on February 1. There, with his gallant fifth place, he marked, as he calls it, the ‘end of a chapter of my life and the beginning of a new one.’
Fast forward several months to now. Do the heart strings in Evans still get pulled – even a bit? ‘Strangely enough, not at all,’ Evans, now 38, tells Cyclist from his home in Stabio, Switzerland after his first cameo at the Giro as a retired rider.
‘Everyone asks me if I miss the racing and I’m like, “No, not at all.” People see the racing, and when you watch the racing on TV you see all the good aspects to it; but when you are a rider you don’t even see the TV. You’re seeing the suffering, hard work, dedication, and disagreements with competitors or team-mates; or the insults, criticism and pressure you’re under from sponsors, media or certain expectations that are sometimes not possible to deliver.
‘These times aren’t easy to deal with. I don’t miss the stress at all, put it that way.’
Returning a year on
Visiting the Giro had been enjoyable for Evans, whose stellar road career led to him becoming, in 2011, the first Australian Tour de France winner. He was also second in the 2007 and 2008 Tours – by 23 and 58 seconds respectively – eighth place on debut in 2005, and fourth in 2006.
From his 17 Grand Tour starts – in the Tour, Giro and Vuelta a España – he made the podium five times. Plus, Evans won the 2009 men’s elite world road race championship, the 2010 Fleche Wallonne, the 2006 and 2011 Tours de Romandie, the 2011 Tirreno-Adriatico and the 2012 Criterium International. Hence, when Evans returned to the Giro in May, he turned many a head in interest.
While at the Giro, Evans caught up with former team-mates and rivals, and spoke to the media, sponsors and race officials who had followed his career – especially since his Grand Tour debut at the 2002 Giro, in which he led going into the final mountain stage before succumbing under a series of attacks on the last steep pinches to finish 14th place overall. But the Giro was not the first race or event Evans had visited since his retirement.
One week after the last race of his career in Geelong, Evans – whose official employment is now as the global ambassador for BMC bicycles, his former team’s main sponsor, which is owned by Andy Riis – was standing trackside at the Velodrome Suisse in Grenchen, Switzerland to support the successful world Hour record attempt by Australian BMC rider Rohan Dennis, who had just won the Tour Down Under two weeks earlier.
Soon after, he attended races such as the Strade Bianche in Italy in March and the Tour of Flanders in Belgium in April before travelling that month to Phuket, Thailand to ride in the Thanyapura Gran Fondo, and then to California. In the US, Evans attended the four-day Sea Otter Classic in Monterey where he won the cross country mountain bike races in 1998 and 1999, and then acclaimed celebrity chef Michael Chiarello’s Bottega Gran Fondo in Yountville where, among those he wined and dined with, were two Americans – his retired former BMC team-mate George Hincapie and 1988 Giro winner Andy Hampsten.
Evans has loved it all. ‘I’ve been lucky that I can go and participate in these rides and see things like the Tour of Flanders, which I had never been to,’ Evans says. ‘I could participate in Gran Fondo Bottega – for anyone who likes food, wine and cycling, it’s the event for you. Going off and riding with George and swapping off into the head wind and saying, “What are we doing here?” – of course we love it.’
However, Evans concedes that back in Europe and amidst the apparent behind-the-scenes chaos of major bike races, adapting has been a challenge. ‘I see everything that I didn’t see before,’ he says, citing as an example his experience at the Giro while travelling to the start of Stage 5 in La Spezia. ‘I had to drive to the PPO,’ he says, referring to the Point de Passage Obligatoire. The PPO is where race vehicles drive to locate their assigned position behind or in front of the race before a start.
‘I had to get out at the PPO and it was all new for me. It was nothing I had ever done. I had to look at the map and see how I get out of here without getting held up in traffic. Things like this are not easy because as a rider you never had to think about it,’ he says.
‘I got to see things at a race that I didn’t get to see before when you’re there as a rider. For example, at the team time trial, you’re doing the warm-up, you’re sitting in the bus, you’re concentrated, you’re talking with your team-mates and the directors, you line up for the start, you’re not outside talking to people and saying hello – whereas now, I talk to people and say hello, which for me has been great.
‘Not that I didn’t like it, but I always went [to a race] for a reason [that being to compete] and now I go for other reasons – and that’s fine. A lot of people realise now how concentrated I was as a rider.’
It’s reassuring to hear Evans chat about cycling in a relaxed tone, indicating he has no regrets about his retirement at a time when comebacks in elite sport so rarely succeed. When I suggest as much, he says: ‘Good – the decision has been made and I can’t go back.’
Even better, Evans feels the ties between him and the peloton and teams are stronger.
‘My rapport with riders and staff is probably different now,’ Evans says. ‘I’m there [at a race] because I want to be there. In that regard you take away [that] “you are my competitor” aspect to a relationship. You’re left with just the relationships you have on a friendship basis, or from the experiences you had, or something common you have which is actually a stronger – not stronger – but a healthier relationship to have.
‘You’re there because you like the friendship there. The companionship I had from the peloton is still there. But when you take away that “I have to beat you in the next race” element to it, the relationship is, of course, just built on those friendships.’
Detraining mind and body
This philosophical outlook from Evans is not a coincidence. Still a stickler for detail, the impact of retirement on an athlete is something in which he is seriously interested. And that impact is not just physical, but also psychological – or ‘emotional’, as he says.
It’s for that reason Evans prefers to keep a busy schedule. ‘I’ve had a pretty intense life,’ he says. ‘It’s not stressful [now] like professional cycling is, but I keep busy because to go one from one extreme to the other is not healthy. It doesn’t keep you in good balance physically or emotionally. So I have kept busy, but mostly around things like with friends, family, health and cycling activity. It’s been enjoyable.’
Hence, amidst all his other commitments, Evans is working on a “detraining program” with his old trainer Andrea Morelli at Mapei Sports – the institution in Varese, Italy he has had ties with since switching from mountain biking to road racing in 2001. Evans says it is a program aimed at assessing what happens to an athlete when they no longer train at the high and intense levels they were used to during their elite career. ‘It’s been interesting, emotionally and mentally’ he says of the changes that are felt. According to Evans, a career like his in cycling ‘gives you so such stimulus that if you stopped completely you wouldn’t be healthy – either emotionally or for your body.’
While he sees his contribution to the study as a way to ‘give back to sports science and to Mapei,’ Evans concedes that it might help his own detraining, which is ongoing. Originally, Evans was being put through a VO2 test at Mapei Sports once a month for a year, but now he is undergoing the test every two months for a 20-month period.
He admits with a laugh that he found the initial transition to train less and then go under testing monthly was a challenge. ‘I thought I had better watch my body weight, I had better stay fit, otherwise I will know how lazy I’ve been.’ But Evans, who recorded a VO2 max reading of 86 at the Australian Institute of Sport as a mountain biker, says he has adapted and understands that the purpose of testing is to ‘see the decline in VO2 max over time. No one has done a study of physiology.’
‘They tested [Miguel] Indurain 10 years after he stopped,’ he continues. ‘But that’s not really useful; whereas if we have it over a long period – in the same laboratory and with the same equipment – it’s more accurate for science, for the interest of science it’s more useful.’
Testing is also a major part of Evans’ role as BMC’s global ambassador – not as the subject, but as the rider putting the bicycles through their paces. ‘I had an idea of what I was going into and what our goals were going into it,’ Evans says.
‘But I have also learned a lot since being there. I do the bike testing, go to events. On a lot of levels I’m learning from what people are doing on their bikes.
‘Obviously, we want to make bikes that suit more people and [can be used]
for what people want them for. And that is right through to designing, pricing, assembling and getting the bikes to their users. All along that path there are a lot of steps along the way.’
Evans, accustomed to racing on top-of-the-line bikes from BMC without thought of cost, has even been surprised by how he has taken to the role in which he tests bikes that come at far more realistic prices – and for a broader market – than a professional team.
‘I don’t race anymore, I just ride. So what I want is exactly what they [the general public] want, because I’m doing the rides everyone is doing,’ Evans says. ‘I returned to my mountain bike and rode the position close to what I rode in the 90s. Mountain bikes have moved on from that and mountain bike races have changed. I’m a longer lower road rider and I [now] ride longer lower on my mountain bike – but we have to include these personal differences we all have.’
No longer having the optimal fitness of a race-seasoned professional makes the bike testing job harder, he admits. ‘Rather than training, I still [have] to do six 25-minute time trials on the hardest, hilliest, roughest circuit you ever saw. I’m exhausted.’
But at the end of the day, Evans says he is happy with where his new life has led him. ‘I have heaps of time and energy,’ he says, adding comment on the freedom that comes with his post-racing life: ‘You’d be amazed. We can go and have a beer together. At Strade Bianche, I walked into the hotel. The [BMC] mechanics were sitting there about to order a drink, so I sat down and had a spritz with them. I’m doing all the things I didn’t do before. I didn’t know they had a beer every day after finishing work. I don’t want to be a mechanic, but I’m happy to hang out and have a beer with them.’