Cadel Evans' plans to go one better than his runner-up place at last year's Tour de France remain intact after what has proved to be an ultimately confidence-boosting week of bike racing.
Yet on Sunday, the 30-year-old Australian was left wondering about his form at the prestigious Liège - Bastogne - Liège one-day classic, where at least one of his yellow jersey rivals put his climbing potential on full display. In the end, Evans finished in seventh place at 40sec behind Spanish winner Alejandro Valverde - a result which, given the difficulty of the 116-year-old race held over 261 km, is still impressive.
After a second place finish on the steep ramps of the Fleche Wallonne classic on Wednesday, Evans was left a little concerned at his inability to follow a handful of fellow race contenders when they upped the pace on one of the race's final climbs.
"I didn't have the legs for the distance today," explained Evans, acknowledging that Liège's 261 km, including 12 punishing climbs, was a far bigger challenge than the 199.5 km of the Fleche Wallonne.
On Sunday the extra 61.5km appeared to make a real difference to Evans' bid, which came apart after he failed to follow Valverde, Davide Rebellin and the Schleck brothers Andy and Frank as they distanced him on the penultimate climb at Roche aux Faucons. With 20km to go, the Australian was left trailing with fellow pre-race favourite Damiano Cunego, last week's winner of the Amstel Gold Race, and unlikely contender Christian Pfannberger.
In the end, Evans did well to finish 40sec behind Valverde, the 2006 winner who finished runner-up last year to absent Italian Danilo Di Luca.
"The team did everything I asked of them and raced really aggressively - they were a little too good for my form," said Evans. "261 km is a little bit different from the 200 km I did on Wednesday."
With July's Tour de France - and then the Olympics in Beijing - Evans' main objectives of the season, the Australian will soon begin preparing for those events in May after what has been a positive spring campaign.
Asked if he was happy with his current form, the former mountain bike champion from Northern Territory was unequivocal.
"Absolutely," he said.
But Evans would be forgiven for being a little concerned over his failure to follow on the Roche aux Faucons, an ascent of only 1.5km with a punishing 9.9 percent average gradient featuring for the first time in a bid to toughen up the course. It was there that Valverde - a potential yellow jersey winner in July - paid particular attention to Evans and Cunego.
"On the Roche I was watching Evans and Cunego," said Valverde. "And when (Frank) Schleck, (Joaquim) Rodriguez and Rebellin went off I saw that Cunego and Evans couldn't follow. That's when I decided to go for it myself."
Prior to then, Evans' Silence-Lotto teammate and fellow Aussie Matthew Lloyd had launched a futile attempt to up the pace in a bid to force a selection. Evans then pulled away himself, but was soon reeled in. When Valverde and company then attacked, Evans couldn't match the pace.
"When they went, I just didn't have the legs to get into position," he said.
But with an historic yellow jersey, and a possible Olympic gold, on the horizon Evans was quick to put things in perspective.
"I hoped for more today, but I'm just a part-time classics rider so I can't be too disappointed. I was more surprised to be (so) good at Fleche Wallonne than I was to be bad today. That's the way it goes. July (the Tour de France) is going to be when everyone says whether my year has been good or bad.
"I'll keep working towards that."
© AFP 2008