Nothing demonstrates more clearly the cruelty of the Tour de France than the fall of a champion. Others may suffer indignities such as throwing up, cramping in agony, or bonking so bad they just want to curl up and die. They suffer in private. But when a champion, especially a defending champion, has a bad day like Cadel Evans had on Wednesday, all the world is looking on.
Seasoned race followers remember Eddy Merckx in 1975 when he blew up on the uphill finish at Pra-Loup and was caught and passed by all his rivals and struggled to the line two minutes behind Bernard Thévenet, who claimed the yellow jersey. A decade later came the public humiliation of Bernard Hinault on a 1984 stage to L’Alpe d’Huez, where his young rival Laurent Fignon haughtily dismissed Hinault’s desperate attack in the valley and left him in the dust on the climb. And, more recently, when five-time winner Miguel Induráin bonked on an alpine climb in 1996, the cameras recorded every moment of his suffering, while the media hounded him as soon as he dismounted at the mountaintop finish in Les Arcs.
There’s no coming back from moments like those.
It was Evans’s turn to learn that harsh truth on a glorious, blue-sky day in the Pyrénées. The Australian has tried valiantly all Tour long to re-discover the form that took him to victory last year, but nothing has gone right. And on Wednesday, when he couldn’t follow the elevated tempo set by his fellow Mapei Training Center alumni, Ivan Basso of Liquigas-Cannondale on the Col d’Aspin, Evans knew his Tour was in tatters. Although he did catch back to the GC leaders on the descent with the help of three BMC Racing teammates, the Aussie veteran’s fate was sealed on the day’s final climb, the Col de Peyresourde. So instead of gaining time, Evans ended losing almost five minutes in the final 25 kilometers to the riders he set out to beat: Brad Wiggins, Chris Froome and Vincenzo Nibali.
Evans crossed the line in 35th place, alongside his teammates George Hincapie and Amaël Moinard, before heading to the anti-doping control for a longer-than-usual visit, probably delayed by the “intestinal issues” he mentioned later. Back at the BMC bus, an impatient media pounced on anyone who could comment on the team leader’s dire day. They bombarded directeur sportif John Lelangue with endless questions, none of which sated their thirst for the true dirt on Cadel’s demise.
Then they saw that standing near the bus, paying a visit to his friend Jim Ochowicz, the BMC team’s co-owner, was none other then Merckx, a man who does know how it feels to be knocked from his pedestal. Out came the microphones and into them went The Cannibal’s observations: “Maybe Cadel had a bad day. It’s the same for everyone.”
Finally, some 45 minutes after he finished the stage, Evans came pedaling up the road to his team bus. Before he even reached its front door, the surging mass of camera- and mike-toting TV, radio and print reporters forced him to a halt. They didn’t get the words they wanted. Instead, Evans, pinned to the side of the bus, simply shouted, “Back door! Back door!”
His plea was relayed inside, the door hissed open, and then quickly closed behind him as if he were Aladdin disappearing into his cave. But for Evans, there was no genie in the lamp that could work magic and restore the time he’d lost. Evans’s bad day had been seen by millions around the world. He later stood on the steps of the bus for a minute to answer a couple of questions.
His eyes were red from the efforts he’d made beneath a burning sun in the near-six hour stage, with its 17,000 feet of climbing over four mountain passes, where hundreds of thousands of fans saw a champion struggle in vain. Evans did try to analyze his defeat, saying he was having stomach problems a couple of hours ahead of the stage start in Pau. Tellingly, he said, “I didn’t think it would affect me in the race.” He then added about his struggling ride, “Obviously, that’s not my normal level, and it’s pretty much Tour de France over for me.”
He later wrote on his Web site: “It seems a short stomach illness was enough to upset my system and weaken me to a very average performance.” Ironically, before the Tour, Evans described this stage 16 as “a day where the yellow jersey could be won or lost.” He didn’t expect that he’d be the one losing his yellow-jersey hope.
The defending champion has battled all year to find the form that saw him win the 2011 Tour. But the signs never aligned on his personal slot machine. He and wife Chiara Passerini spent much of the winter adopting a child, an abandoned African baby boy, which entailed visiting Ethiopia for three weeks and then adjusting their Swiss household to the demands of lively little Robel, now 20 months old.
Once his racing season began, Evans was sick at Tirreno-Adriatico in March, though he never said what it was. A virus then kept him from riding the Ardennes classics in April. And he struggled to find some form on his return at the Tour de Romandie, a race he won easily last year, but this year placed only 29th, well behind Wiggins and a dominant Team Sky. His performance was better at the Dauphiné, winning a “flat” stage and taking third overall, but well below what he needed to properly defend his Tour title against better-prepared opponents.
Whether Evans has the inspiration and fight to come back from this latest defeat, only he can know. He may surprise us all in the embers of this 99th Tour, and he could return in 2013 with all his guns blazing. But for now, another champion has fallen.