Australian Cadel Evans looked a changed man ahead of the potentially race-changing ninth stage of the Tour de France on Tuesday.
And it’s partly down to the absence from his Predictor-Lotto team of compatriot Robbie McEwen, who was disqualified after finishing outside the time limits on Sunday’s eighth stage.
“From now on, there will be seven riders totally dedicated to helping Cadel get on the podium,” declared team manager Marc Sergeant.
That remark, from a team which has so long been built around McEwen’s bid for stage wins and the race’s green jersey, has been a long time coming.
It’s been even longer since a Belgian team had a rider aiming for cycling’s fabled yellow jersey.
But if past history is anything to go by, the signs look good for Evans, whose Tour campaign has been going to plan so far.
The last time a Belgian team won the yellow jersey was in 1989, when American Greg Lemond claimed his second triumph on the race with the ADR outfit.
Evans sits in sixth place, only a few minutes off the pace of race leader Michael Rasmussen, who is expected to lose the yellow jersey by next Saturday’s time trial at the latest.
More importantly, he has a 53sec lead on German Andreas Kloden, and 2:30 on Kloden’s Astana teammate Alexandre Vinokourov, whose status as the pre-race favourite is now slowly eroding away.
On Monday’s rest day Evans looked ahead, sometimes reluctantly, to how he could become the first ever Australian to win the world’s toughest race.
But there is a definite air of confidence about the softly-spoken former mountain biker who on his two previous participations finished eighth (2005) and fifth (2006) overall.
“It’s unfortunate Robbie leaving, but you have to take a positive out of a negative,” said Evans. His team may not be stacked with climbing talent, but he will have the support of two strong riders in the mountains, Chris Horner and Dario Cioni.
“I’m focusing on doing a good Tour. But I’m certainly not going to tell myself that (winning) is not possible,” said Evans.
With two time trials totalling 110km still to come – and three tough days in the Pyrenees in the third week – Paris is still a long way off.
Evans is not worried about the races against the clock, which he believes could play a major role in separating the yellow jersey contenders this year.
“I’m glad we’ve done some work on that this year. Every second counts,” he said.
But he has moved to calm the fans who have been begging him to display his climbing prowess in a bid to distance his rivals.
“I always read that I don’t attack enough. But, for example, when you’re following (Lance) Armstrong up the climb, just to stay on the wheel there’s no point in thinking about attacking because you’re not going to get very far.
“Of course when the opportunities arrive, and the legs are good, I’ll be attacking. But it (the race) has just begun.
“Attacking the best riders in the world on the hardest race in the world isn’t so easy.
“I think my strength lies in my consistency and my regularity through three weeks. But if a good opportunity arrives, where you see guys are suffering and you’re good, then you go, because every second that you have on the others is what you need to get a good result in Paris.”
He added: “Everyone says I’m more relaxed this year, but I’m definitely much better prepared. I haven’t suffered as much as I have in previous years leading up to the Tour.
“That comes down to experience, age, and this year we’ve really put everything into the Tour instead of focusing on races in April. Everything’s been focused towards July.”
Going on his recent form, Evans should still be in the mix after Tuesday’s third and final stage in the Alps, where Kloden and Vinokourov’s Tour fate could be decided by an increasingly frisky peloton.
A solid time trialler, Evans could then cruise towards a decent time trial in Albi next Saturday which could move him up a few places.
From there, the race heads into the Pyrenees for three tough days of riding, and where an increasingly relaxed Evans should come into his own.
“We’ve previewed most of the mountains stages,” he said, denying that he had taken a leaf out of Armstrong’s book, the American seven-time winner who famously previewed most of the race’s mountains stages.
“Since my first mountain bike race when I was 14 years old I’ve been pre-racing the courses. So I wouldn’t say Armstrong invented that.
“He just refined it.”
© AFP 2007