Australia’s Cadel Evans said he is unlikely to rely on his time trialling powers alone in his bid to win the yellow jersey on this year’s Tour de France.
Evans came agonisingly close to becoming Australia’s first Tour champion in 2007 when he finished just 23secs behind Spanish rival Alberto Contador in a race that, some argue, was artificially modified by several doping affairs.
This year Contador is absent due to his team’s non-invitation by organisers. Astana were evicted last year following Alexandre Vinokourov’s positive test for blood doping after his win on the first time trial.
In the Albi race against the clock, Evans finished second at 1min 14sec behind the Kazakh, who was later disqualified from the race.
The 2008 race is also missing Danish climber Michael Rasmussen, the long-time leader in 2007 whose attacks in the Pyrenees often prompted Contador to follow, but left Evans struggling to follow suit.
In the end, Rasmussen was thrown out for suspected doping, and after Contador was handed the yellow jersey the Spaniard secured it with his performance in the penultimate stage time trial.
Their absence has left Silence-Lotto leader Evans as the favourite, with Spaniard Alejandro Valverde of Caisse d’Epargne tipped to provide his biggest challenge once the going gets tough in the Pyrenees then Alps.
With both riders possessing similar climbing abilities, and Valverde having improved his time trialling – his former weak spot – there is little on paper to separate the pair.
It was suggested recently that Evans, a superb time trialler, would be happy to keep a watch on his rivals in the mountains before making the difference on the race’s two time trials – a tactic that was mastered by Miguel Indurain of Spain during his five year reign in 1991-1995.
But because of the relative shortness of the total time trialling distance – the first, on the fourth stage, is 29.5km, and the second, on stage 20, is 53km – Evans says that is not an option.
“Last year the only time I took time from the leaders was in the time trial, and this year there’s less time trial kilometres, so I have to weigh it up,” he told AFP here Thursday.
“But with the limited time trial kilometres, it’s not going to be possible to ride an Indurain-style of Tour. I’ll just try to be the best climber I can and the best time trialler I can be.
“Once we get to the mountains, we’ll have to adapt our tactics once we see how everyone else is going.”
Evans’ progression in his past three Tours has been steady, finishing an impressive eighth on his debut (2005), fourth in 2006 and runner-up last year.
Despite a favourite’s tag which he seems to be dealing with serenely, the Australian was coy on the absence of Rasmussen, who is now banned for two years, and Contador.
“I don’t make the rules or invite the riders to the race – that’s nothing to do with me,” he said, denying he felt cheated out of last year’s Tour.
“You’re in a race and in a situation and that’s just what happens sometimes in races. It’s the way it is.”
But he admitted their absence has given his Silence team a small dilemma.
“It actually changes a lot tactically in the sense that it’s a bit of a disadvantage for us.
“If they had their teams here it would make the race a lot less unpredictable, whereas without them it makes it a little bit difficult for us in the team to manage things tactically.”
Still, Evans’s team will have to be wary of a few potential challengers.
The CSC team led by Carlos Sastre, a former podium finisher, is boosted by the Schleck brothers Andy and Franck, either of whom could, in the right circumstances, prove a threat.
Rabobank have long since sacked Rasmussen, but their Russian veteran Denis Menchov is a strong outside bet. Menchov has won the Tour of Spain twice in recent years.
Lampre will look to Damiano Cunego to launch their yellow jersey bid, although the former Giro d’Italia champion would have to score some big wins in the mountains to give himself a cushion for his relatively weak time trialling.
In short, there’s no shortage of rivals for Evans – although ahead of what he described as his “best chance yet” of making history for Australia he is dealing well with the increased attention.
“I’ve been on plenty of big races before,” he said. “Now, there’s just more media requests and a few more TV cameras but the training has been the same.”