Australian cycling isn’t ready for Cadel Evans to retire

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When the Giro d’Italia ended yesterday Australia’s Cadel Evans told reporters that his eighth-place finish was far from what he was hoping for, but that he wouldn’t be beating himself up about it. And while many are asking when the 37-year-old will call an end to his long and illustrious career, he seems to have no immediate plans to retire. As Olympic gold medalist Scott McGrory writes, that’s probably a good thing – Australian cycling isn’t ready for Cadel to move on yet.

Winning the 2011 Tour de France thrust Cadel Evans through the stratosphere of sporting recognition in Australia. Within the cycling community he was already a star, and well known as an immensely talented rider. But in 2011 he slipped into a special category of people that no longer require a surname. As with Kylie, Madonna and The Don, if you say “Cadel”, the majority of the Australian population know to whom you are referring.

With that recognition has come scrutiny and armchair experts are quick to criticize whenever Cadel doesn’t live up to the lofty heights of his Tour victory. Yet it is exactly these people, with their new-found appreciation for Cadel and the Tour, that are not ready to see him hang up his bike.

The understanding of cycling as a sport is growing rapidly in Australia, but we may not be ready to say goodbye to Cadel, without a successor to fill his shoes.

Cadel’s plan for 2014 was to skip the Tour de France and focus on the Giro d’Italia. It was a plan that made sense off the back of his third place in the Giro last year, and the realisation that it’s unlikely he’d be a podium contender at the Tour in 2014. It was all going to plan early in the Giro and on stage 6 Cadel finally had some luck (or strong team tactics) go his way for a change as he gained time on his rivals after a mass pile up. That was followed by a stint in the leader’s Maglia Rosa and we were all hopeful.

Unfortunately, it was not a fairytale ending to Cadel’s 2014 Giro d’Italia story. And it will forever be the race he was well suited to win, but one that got away from him.

In 2002, riding his first full pro season with the Mapei team, Cadel also had a stint in pink. In his first Grand Tour, his class was immediately apparent when he took over the race leadership on stage 16. It was short-lived though, and the next day, Cadel’s inexperience got the better of him. He went hunger-flat and Tyler Hamilton, noticing that Evans looked fragile, attacked, dragging eventual winner Paolo Savoldelli with him. Cadel’s fate was sealed.

After a couple seasons with the German team Telekom where he was employed to work, reluctantly, for Jan Ullrich, Cadel found a home at Team Lotto, and his Tour de France journey began.

Cadel after winning the world championships road race in Mendrisio, Switzerland in 2009.
Cadel after winning the world championships road race in Mendrisio, Switzerland in 2009.

It’s often said that many of the big race victories Cadel was capable of were lost to the doctors and laboratories of cycling’s dirty past.

In this year’s Giro though, it was simply a case of arriving at the party a few years too late. His third place last year was certainly a great ride, but by the standards Cadel sets himself, it wasn’t enough. He wanted a Giro victory, and now I feel for him, knowing that it won’t happen. I know Cadel wouldn’t swap his Tour de France win for a Giro anytime soon, but had Cadel’s career started now we could assume there’d be a few more of the biggest races added to his results sheet.

By his own admission he is a fighter, and there are still races to aim for this season. The World Championships course suits him, and the Giro d’Lombardia would be another goal to chase. And perhaps the Vuelta a España becomes a focus, rather than just a lead-up event to the Worlds. He will, as he always does, recover from this loss and look forward to the next goal.

As Cadel has brought cycling in Australia to the masses, during the ’80s Greg Lemond took cycling in the USA to the next level after his three Tour victories. The football-, basketball- and baseball-mad public started to appreciate this crazy three-week bicycle race in the ‘old world’. Some were amazed to discover it was actually bigger than the Gator Bowl. Yet when Greg retired there was somewhat of a lull in US audiences until the phenomenon known as Lance came along.

Of course cycling in the States didn’t disappear in the years between Greg and Lance, but the interest in the big European races did drop off. The local scene was still quite strong — there were several good teams with healthy budgets — and it was probably at its peak during the ’90s, but the general public went back to watching football. Lance’s Motorola squad were picking up results in Europe, his World Title and Tour stage wins for example, but it wasn’t the widespread endorsement that LeMond received.

In Australia we’re also growing the level of our domestic racing and the Subaru National Road Series is improving from year to year. However it doesn’t get any traction in the mainstream media at present, so the only cycling the general public know about is what Cadel and co are doing in Europe.

It makes me wonder what will happen if Cadel does decide to call it quits at the end of this season. As a sport can we afford to lose him? I’m not sure we can just yet!

Cadel Evans, winner of the 2011 Tour de France.
Cadel Evans, winner of the 2011 Tour de France.

I believe Cadel is capable of doing a few more seasons on the proviso he mentally wants to, and accepts that he’ll have to change his role within his team. He could still go for races like Paris-Nice or Tirreno-Adriatico, and the Ardennes and Autumn Classics. But those races may not pop up on the Australian media radar if he’s not gunning for the Tour anymore. And unless the Orica-GreenEdge lads keep snatching a Maillot Jaune or two, we may need riders like Richie Porte or perhaps Rohan Dennis to step up to contender level.

OGE has stated that they are talking to a GC rider, someone that will focus on winning a Grand Tour. That’s exciting from my perspective as I’m a big fan of the OGE outfit. It’s our Aussie team taking on the world and they are the next best vehicle behind Cadel for promoting Australian cycling. There’s speculation as to who this GC rider might be and even Brad Wiggins’ name has been thrown out there by cycling fans.

There are several reason why that is difficult to believe, and it’s more likely to be a future star like Wilco Kelderman that’s in OGE’s sights. Wilco, of course, is not an Australian but regardless, at 23 he’s showing huge potential.

It would be a shame to lose the momentum that cycling is gaining in Australia, but that is a risk that comes with Cadel’s retirement. And with so many road and track riders coming through we’re far better suited to continue the expansion than the US was in the ’90s.

Anna Meares has been chipping away at the mainstream media for a while as well, and I hope her run in to the Rio Olympics is well documented. But the real challenge is to convince the Australian media contingent that there are races outside of the Tour de France that are worthy of covering. In my perfect world, cycling is spoken about by footy fans when they’re settling into their seats before a game.

“Did you see the stage of Tirreno last night? The Aussies were bloody strong, things are looking good for San Remo!”And then the siren blows to start the game.

It’s growing all the time, but cycling is still a niche sport in this part of the world. Sure the Tour has widespread appeal, partly due to the amazing feats of endurance that everyone can appreciate, but maybe more so due to the brilliant marketing ploy by French tourism.

There’s a reason the race organisers employ a guy to drive the course six months in advance, to scrutinise the châteaux, castles and landscape. He compiles a book of highlights for every stage, for the commentators to read out during the coverage.

Cadel was third in the Vuelta a Espana in 2009, behind Alejandro Valverde and his now-teammate Sammy Sanchez. Could Cadel be heading back to the Vuelta this year?
Cadel was third in the Vuelta a Espana in 2009, behind Alejandro Valverde and his now-teammate Sammy Sanchez. Could Cadel be heading back to the Vuelta this year?

Cadel has said that he doesn’t want to be ‘just a rider’ and if he feels he won’t be competitive in the biggest races, he’ll retire. And when that time comes he certainly deserves to hang his bike up on his own terms. Yet I can’t help but hope it’s not this year, for when I look at the bigger picture of where cycling sits in the Australian sporting landscape, we haven’t quite prepared our succession plan.

A simple way to judge where different sports sit in the hierarchy of Aussie recognition is to look at where they sit on TV. The most popular sports are fought over by the commercial channels, and it’s been interesting to see Channel Nine take on the Tour Down Under in recent years. That has come at the disgust of many hardcore cycling fans declaring it disgraceful that Ch9 ‘stole’ the TDU from SBS Television.

SBS is the home of cycling on free-to-air TV in Australia, while Eurosport broadcasts more races but are a cable or satellite channel. What the hardcore fans don’t realise though, is for cycling to be really successful it needs recognition from a mainstream audience. When that happens the commercial networks will also fight for leverage and we’ll know we’ve made it. I’m happy for it to stay on SBS, but I hopeful of the time when SBS wins broadcast contracts in a battle against the commercial networks.

At the moment that’s not a threat! So until another rider or two pop up and look like becoming true Tour contenders, my fingers are crossed that Cadel at least sees Liege-Bastogne-Liege, or Lombardia as tasty treats and continues for at least another season.

This post first appeared at Scott McGrory’s website. You can read more of his opinion and analysis pieces there.

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