Australia discovered the full scope of Cadel Evans' yellow jersey potential in Angouleme on Saturday, and despite an anticipated runner-up place on the Tour de France he is already looking to the future. Evans will go into Sunday's 20th and final stage of the race with a 23-sec deficit to Spain's Alberto Contador.
In what was one of the most thrilling finales to one of the most drug-tainted races in years, Contador did just enough to hold on to the yellow jersey he pulled on after the controversial ejection of Michael Rasmussen.
If he wins on Sunday - after a final stage to the Champs Elysees that is traditionally dominated by the green jersey contenders - Contador's virtual winning margin will go down as the second smallest in the race's history after Greg Lemond's eight-second triumph over Frenchman Laurent Fignon, after a final day time trial in 1989.
Evans quipped he had "already had words with Tom Boonen" about a plan to collaborate and claw back some bonus seconds to overhaul the Spaniard. But he seems to have already accepted his runner-up place, which he says came down to a single stage in the Pyrenees.
"Theoretically its possible (to overcome the deficit), but let's digest today's stage first!" said Evans, who thus claims his third consecutive top ten place on the world's biggest bike race. "I'm not too disappointed. All along my aim was to do better than last year, when I came fifth. This year I'm second, but of course when you're so close to winning ...
"I could be disappointed but what's it going to change? A lot of dirty words were said by me to my team managers, after the (15th) stage over the Peyresourde (mountain pass). People might understand why - I lost 55 seconds to Contador there.
"But I did my best and did what I could. I'll try again next year. All I wanted to do is the best race I can, and improve on last year's place. Second's better than fifth isn't it?"
Evans began the Tour knowing that the Predictor-Lotto's team's efforts would be shared between him and fellow Aussie Robbie McEwen. Once sprint king McEwen, who won the first stage to take his tally on the race to 12, bowed out after missing the time limit in the Alps, Evans' team was fully committed to his cause.
But when it came to keeping pace with Leipheimer and Contador, and moreso the startlingly impressive Danish climber Rasmussen, Evans was left on his own. On stage 15, when Contador took the stage ahead of Rasmussen after Evans was left trailing, none of the teams supposedly interested in challenging for the yellow jersey took up the challenge.
"I was disappointed by the fact that some other teams - Astana and Caisse d'Epargne - left me all alone to try and chase down Rasmussen and Contador," said Evans. "They didn't even make an effort to control the race at all. That's where I lost my 55 seconds, and the race."
Despite his 'defeat', Evans' heroics - in the face of some suspicious rivals - should, and will be applauded. Certainly, the cries resonating around his Belgian team's bus after Saturday's race against the clock already had the 30-year-old in the 'legend' category. And you could understand why.
Only pioneering Australian Phil Anderson, with two fifth place finishes, has finished so high up in the race - before Evans came along. Like any good team leader, he was quick to thank the teammates who gave him protection from the wind and kept him in the breaks on some of the race's harder stages.
"I'd like to go and give a pat on the back to every single team member, but right now I just want to give my wife a kiss and put my feet up for a few minutes," said Evans, standing beside his Italian wife Chiara.
Evans, who started the race hoping for a place on the podium, is hoping he has taken enough from this year's race to return with loftier ambitions in 2008. "I think I have a pretty good idea how to ride this Tour now, I don't know everything, but that (15th stage) to me was where I lost the Tour de France.
"I'm still on my progression. I debuted in eighth, then I came fifth and now second. I've got a good five or six years of Tour riding in front of me I think."
© AFP 2007