Tour de France 2011: 10 (and Last) True Grit Wins

Cadel Evans richly deserved his victory in the Tour de France this year.  He is the oldest “modern era” victor at age 34, with a wealth of road racing experience and a wide range of skills.  He is versatile and multi-faceted, having begun his professional cycling career as a mountain biker.  He has won the World Championship race that traditionally ends the road cycling year.  As his skills evolved, Evans became a factor in the Tour de France, finishing second twice and fourth once, but holding the Yellow Jersey (indicative of the overall lead in the race) for only six days during the race in all.  Evans can time trial well, can climb well, descend quite well, and can sprint moderately well.  In none of these areas has he been the best, however.  His general strategy in the past few Tours has been to hang with the group of lead riders in the mountains, launching an opportunistic brief attack on some occasions, and to finish among the top handful in the Individual Time Trial.  His team has generally not been strong enough to give him a boost in Tours that have included the Team Time Trial.  But his US-based BMC team this year changed that.

What Evans has always had is “grit.”  He’s hung in there, plugged away, and put himself in a position to take advantage of his opportunities and the mistakes, shortcomings, and misfortunes of others.  Usually, though, he’s had one or two bad days, days bad enough to put him out of the running for the top spot.  This year he elevated his game just a bit, and everybody else had enough mistakes, shortcomings, and misfortunes for him to win, when his grit was factored in.

I think of four stages that illuminate his victory formula.  First, there was his sole stage win on the Mûr-de-Bretagne in Stage Four.  This is the stage with the short, steep ascent at the very end of a ‘bumpy” rather than mountainous route.  Evans did not get dropped on the climb by the star climbers; indeed, he participated in the flurry of small attacks in the last couple of kms, and used his superior sprinting skills to beat defending champion Alberto Contador on the line by just a few cms.  Andy Schleck dropped a few precious seconds here, and Evans delivered a “message” to all his rivals.  Then there was Stage 16, that finished over the Col de Manse, downhill past the “Beloki hairpin,” and into Gap.  Evans descended with the favorites, behind a breakaway group, but in the finishing kms attacked his chasing group, gaining up to 30 seconds over the favorites at one point.  He finished with an insignificant advantage of 3 seconds, but he had displayed his powerful will to be aggressive, something he’s not always done in the past.  The “Galibier Stage,” 18, on which Andy Schleck attacked with his long breakaway, was perhaps the most vivid one for Evans.  Again holding in grittily with the chase group of favorites, Evans let the Schleck attack go, not wanting to burn himself out with 60 km left to race by chasing.  However, Schleck’s inferior descending skills off the Col d’Izoard, the next to last climb, combined with Evans’ strong descending there, helped keep Schleck within arm’s length.  Then halfway up the last climb, approaching the Col du Lautaret turn, Evans took over sole responsibility for towing the chasers along, when Contador couldn’t and Voeckler wouldn’t help out.  First Evans’ gritty charge dropped Contador out of race contention.  Then it was Evans who assured that Schleck’s advantage would be minimized, reducing a 4:20″ Schleck lead at one point on the road to only 2:15″ at the finish.  And since Evans had nibbled a bit of time from Schleck in earlier stages, that left him a manageable 57 seconds for Evans to overcome in the time trial.

But races are won on the road, not on paper.  Evans had to go out and demonstrate his time-trialing superiority.  And he did just that and more, by putting an astonishing 2:31″ into Schleck in the ITT.  He came in second by seven seconds, but Evans was far and away the best time trialler among his General Classification rivals.  And so, although he only put on the Yellow Jersey after Stage 20, Evans wore it into Paris on Sunday.  As Lance always used to say, that’s the only point when wearing it really matters.  Congratulations, Cadel!

PS  And good going, Tom Danielson.  Everybody on this side of the Pond loved your 9th place finish!

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.

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