By Chris Carmichael
Cadel Evans wrapped up a near-perfect Tour de France today, crossing the finish line on the Champs Elysees to become the first Australian ever to win the race. It’s been a long time coming for Evans, who has finished second on two previous occasions (2007 and 2008) and seen his Tour chances derailed by bad luck on two other occasions (2009 and 2010). This year, though, he did everything right, and rode away with the biggest victory of his career
Although it is most often said that the strongest rider wins the Tour de France, there is more to it than that. Cadel Evans started his Tour de France campaign with the Silence-Lotto team, but that team didn’t have the organization or the depth to keep him in position to win. Moving over to the new and small BMC racing team a few years ago was an important – and risky move. The team was not an automatic selection for the Tour de France and had to race their way in by posting great results in early-season races. Last year, Cadel’s pre-Tour schedule was designed to ensure that the team was granted entry into the Tour de France, but that meant there was a lot of pressure on him in the months leading up to July. He and the team succeeded in gaining selection, but by the time Evans reached the Tour de France he didn’t have the form necessary to rival Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck.
Fast-forward one year and the BMC racing team had established itself well enough to be ensured of a starting position in the Tour de France. As a result, Evans was able to plan his spring training and racing campaign around optimal preparation for the Tour de France. He didn’t race the Tour of Italy, which was a smart move because while the Tour of Italy used to be great preparation for the Tour de France, in recent years the Giro d’Italia has become so difficult that it appears there is not enough time between the two Grand Tours for a rider to adequately recover and achieve a positive training stimulus before the start of the Tour de France.
In retrospect, I wonder if Alberto Contador did his hopes of capturing a fourth Tour de France title a disservice by choosing to race the Giro d’Italia. Perhaps if he hadn’t raced the Giro to win, and instead focused on it only as a training experience, he would have started the Tour de France with less fatigue. His form returned in the final week of the race, but by then it was too late and his efforts to assert himself and regain lost time were ineffective.
In contrast, Evans skipped the Giro d’Italia and instead focused on a combination of one-day races and short stage races. He won the Tirreno-Adriatico stage race in March, and the 5-day Tour de Romandie stage race in early May. In June he finished second in one of the traditional tune-up races for the Tour de France: the Criterium du Dauphine. That race included an individual time trial on the exact same course used in the Stage 20 time trial yesterday, and the experience of racing on the course in June may have been a big part of the reason Evans was able to take the corners and meet the challenges of the course so well yesterday.
In addition to his own preparation, Evans benefited from the all-for-one organization within his BMC team. The team came to the Tour de France with only one goal. They did not care about stage wins, the points jersey or the mountains jersey. They brought a group of riders capable to protecting Evans in the first week, perhaps at the expense of having riders capable of riding beside him in the mountains. But again with the benefit of hindsight, the wisest decision may have been having larger and powerful riders like Marcus Burghardt and George Hincapie to steer him through the chaos of the first week and keep him at the front and out of trouble. Yes, Evans was relatively isolated without teammates on the big mountain passes later in the race, but there he benefited from the fact that the group of yellow jersey contenders was relatively large and contained other riders motivated to help chase down attacks.
It’s a great victory for Evans, who has built a tremendous career. He started out as a champion mountain bike racer, twice winning the World Cup. He’s won one-day spring Classics (Fleche Wallone in 2010) and was the 2009 World Champion. And now he can add the biggest Grand Tour in the world to his palmares and he will forever be known as a Tour de France Champion.
The Other Jerseys
All four of the jersey competitions in the 2011 Tour de France were won by first-time winners. This is not uncommon for the Young Rider Competition (white jersey), since it is reserved for riders who are under 25 years old. This year the white jersey went to a Frenchman, Pierre Rolland of the Europecar squad. Riding in defense of team leader Thomas Voeckler’s yellow jersey played a big role in Rolland’s win, because it provided incentive for him to be at the front of the race in the high mountains. But when Voeckler finally succumbed to the pressure and fell off the pace on Stage 19, Rolland seized the opportunity and scored a huge stage win atop l’Alpe d’Huez. He followed that up with a great time trial on Stage 20 to defend his lead over Rein Taaramae of Estonia, and he leaves the 2011 Tour de France as France’s next great hope to become the first French winner of the race since Bernard Hinault last won in 1985.
The King of the Mountains jersey was won by 2008 Olympic Champion Sammy Sanchez. The rules for the polka dot jersey competition changed this year, dramatically reducing the number of points available for smaller climbs. In recent years, the King of the Mountains competition had been won by lesser-known riders who accumulated a lot of points in the medium-mountain stages and the first few climbs of the major mountain stages. The strategy for winning the polka dot jersey had become formulaic: you get into a long breakaway in one or more medium mountain stages to build a big lead. Then you ride hard to stay with the yellow jersey contenders over the first 1-2 major mountain passes in the stages in the Pyrenees and Alps, knowing you’ll be dropped before the final ascents and summit finishes.
By changing the rules for the mountains competition, the organizers structured the competition to favor the men who would be most successful in the high mountains. As a result, this was the first year in a while that the King of the Mountains competition was won by a rider who also placed in the top 10 overall.
The rules were also changed for the Green Jersey Points Competition. In previous years there were two intermediate sprints each day, but the points awarded were only 6, 4, and 2 for the first three riders across the line, respectively. The major points were available at the finish line. This year, there was only one intermediate sprint on each stage, there were 20 points available for the winner, and points available to the top 15 riders across the line. As usual there were more points available for the top riders at the stage finishes.
Mark Cavendish has now won 20 stages of the Tour de France in the span of four years, but this was the first year that he won the green jersey. The change in the rules for the green jersey competition played a significant role in his victory this year, which seems only fitting. The green jersey has always been about consistency and the ability to earn points throughout the race. But at the same time, it’s been somewhat difficult to rationalize that a rider who consistently wins 4-5 stages a year – and actually finished the race in Paris, unlike sprint kings like Mario Cipollini – didn’t win the green jersey.
Across the board, the 2011 Tour de France was a raging success for the organizers, the fans, and the racers. If there is one aspect of the race that may need some additional attention, perhaps it is the opening week. There were a lot of crashes in the first nine stages of the race, and the lack of a prologue or individual time trial may have contributed to those crashes by eliminating an opportunity for a significant “sorting out” of the yellow jersey contenders. Without that sorting out, the pressure to ride at the front of the peloton was immense. When there’s a prologue and time trial to establish some early time gaps, the yellow jersey contenders seem more willing to cede the very front of the peloton to the sprinters’ teams in the opening week. Similarly, the difficulty of the stages in the opening this week may have made the finishes less predictable and more important for the overall race for the yellow jersey, but that strategy by the organizers may have inadvertently contributed to the danger as well.
As the greatest show in cycling wrapped up this afternoon, it was great to see George Hincapie leading the peloton over the finish line to start the first of eight laps on the Champs Elysees. Today he finished his 15th Tour de France (out of a record-tying 16 starts), and for the ninth time he was an integral part of delivering his team captain to the overall victory. It was also great to see the Garmin-Cervelo team on the podium as winners of the Team Classification. No one deserved that title more than Jonathan Vaughters’ team, which won four stages (the team time trial, two stage wins for Thor Hushovd, and a sprint victory for Tyler Farrar on July 4) and expertly supported Tom Danielson on his way to a ninth-place overall finish.
The Tour de France is great marriage of innovation and tradition, with cutting-edge technology incorporated into the bikes, apparel, nutrition strategies, and recovery modalities; and the timeless heroics of world’s best cyclists battling for supremacy on the windy plains and steep mountain passes of France. Next year will bring another edition of the world’s greatest cycling race, and if we are lucky it will be as exciting, enthralling, and inspiring as the one that just ended. Congratulations to Cadel Evans, the BMC team, and all the riders who finished the 2011 Tour de France.
Chris Carmichael rode the Tour de France in 1986 with 7-Eleven and has been writing Tour de France commentary for the past 11 years. He is CEO and Head Coach of Carmichael Training Systems, the premier destination for coaching, training camps, and performance testing since 2000; and Official Coaching and Camps Partner of Ironman. Follow Chris on Twitter at www.twitter.com/trainright, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carmichaeltrainingsystems, or www.trainright.com.