By a margin invisible to the human eye is a momentum established that will lead to the greatest prize in cycling.
Cadel Evans pips Alberto Contador atop the Mûr de Bretagne to win the fourth stage of the 2011 Tour de France. It is the first time in 98 editions that the race has finished at its 293m summit.
The finishing ramp is widely considered a launch pad for a second victory for Philippe Gilbert, winner of this Tour’s opening stage and already the undisputed star of the Spring, triumphant in all of the big Ardennes races. The Grand Tour elite, however, have other ideas.
Its incline is savage, particularly in the first half. Its two-kilometre length or 6.9 per cent average gradient barely tell the story. The first half is especially cruel: wicked sections in double digits, marked in black on ASO’s natty graphic, leg breakers for all but the best.
The best are here in numbers. Here is Gilbert, resplendent in the maillot à pois. Here is Rigberto Urán, freed at the denouement from the task of pacing Bradley Wiggins. And here are Evans and Contador: the Spaniard dancing, stood upright on the pedals, hands on the hoods, versus the gritty Australian, crouched low behind the drops and slinging his bars from side to side beneath the effort of turning a huge gear.
ASO wanted an early showdown. They have one. Evans leads out. Contador scampers after him, then swings out from the Australian’s slipstream at the death. Evans, the former mountain bike world champion who has never ridden the track in his life, hurls his bike at the line in the manner of a match sprinter. It is close, impossibly so, but the photo finish, or its modern, digitised equivalent, reveals that Contador’s late effort has fallen short. Evans is the victor.
It is a win for which BMC Racing’s then-leader could justifiably claim all the credit. He chooses not to. From the vantage point of retirement, several years after a career-defining campaign – one that brought overall victory at Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour de Romandie, as well as the Tour – Evans describes events on the Mûr de Bretagne as a summary for a season in which an entire team unified around the goal of overall victory, stage after stage, race after race.
Too modest by far, surely. Was it not he, and he alone, who outgunned El Pistolero? For Evans, it is more pertinent to ask who had placed him in the position to do so. “It was the team that won the race that day,” he says. “I had to change the bike with about 8km to go, I think: narrow roads, coming out of the wind and so on. The guys all waited for me, lined me up and then – boom – brought me to the front and I could finish off the job at the end. It was a nice little summary of the mentality and spirit of the team. ‘Oh, here’s a little problem. Quick – all hands on deck. What have we got to do? Let’s get this sorted. Okay. We’re on’.”
It says much for Evans that he remembers events on the Mûr with such generosity. We know that his years with the various incarnations of Lotto had been wrought with increasing frustration. After two second places at the Tour, and a third at the Vuelta (a direct consequence of mechanical failure), Evans thirsted for Grand Tour victory like a man with a growing dread of being trapped forever in a desert.
The seeds of his greatest victory were unquestionably sewn atop the Mûr. More than the win – for Evans had claimed a stage at the 2007 Tour – here was evidence that things were finally going his way. Hopes of victory the previous year had been holed by a crash on stage eight, and a day later, riding in the yellow jersey with a fractured elbow, he lost eight minutes to Contador. Now he was depriving the Spaniard of victory.
There would be more special moments to come, not least the penultimate stage time-trial around Grenoble in which Evans sealed his Tour victory, and which he describes, without exaggeration or fear of contradiction, as “one of the most incredible experiences you’re ever going to have in sport.”
Then there is the performance on stage 18 to Serre Chevalier – the Tour-saving pursuit of Andy Schleck – which, to the impassive observer appears to be entirely Evans’ work, but for which he applauds his team-mates doggedness earlier in the day. It was a cause taken up by Evans alone when his GC rivals – Basso, Contador and Voeckler – seemed entirely disinterested in chasing down the younger Schleck. With a little under 10km of the stage remaining, Evans decided enough was enough.
“In summary, I’d been racing at that period for 19 years, and I think everything I’d learned in those 19 years I put to use that day, in those 9.5km. Everything was to be won or lost there. When you can win or lose the Tour, that’s not such an easy situation to be in. There’s not many riders who can handle that, trust me.”
This last statement is delivered with a chuckle, as if he still can’t quite believe the calmness of his response, the careful judgement of his effort. He recalls the updates on the radio – “Contador’s getting dropped. This is great. Keep going” – and the knowledge that his team-mates further down the valley would be listening to those same progress reports. He chuckles too at DS John Lelangue’s well-intentioned remark that, win or lose, Evans was delivering the ride of a champion.
“I was thinking to myself, ‘If I don’t win this Tour now I’ll be…’” He gives way, momentarily, to incredulous laughter. “I won’t say what I thought to myself exactly – it’s unfit for print.” He opts finally for “quite disappointed”.
There can be little doubt, however, that such momentous events were set in train by Evans’ performance on the Mûr de Bretagne: an uninterrupted incline that is, to the racing cyclist, a study in cruelty. It is a worthy rival to those other iconic ramps that carry the same epithet over in Geraardsbergen and Huy.
The Breton Alpe d’Huez? Not quite. As savage? Unquestionably. To conquer it is the work of more than one man, if we are to believe Evans. And why shouldn’t we? He, better than any, knows what is required there for victory.