AN EMOTIONAL Cadel Evans has paid tribute to his late coach Aldo Sassi after setting himself up for victory in this year’s Tour de France.
A spluttering Evans could not fight back the tears as he revealed it was Sassi, who died last December after losing his battle with brain cancer, that inspired him to his likely win – the first by an Australian in the great race.
“He said to me at one point last year, ‘I hope for you. I’m sure you can win the Grand Tour. I hope for you it is the Tour de France, because that’s the biggest and most prestigious tour. If you do that, you will become the most complete rider of your generation’,” Evans said.
“For him today to have seen me now would have be quite something. It was him that believed in me from October 2001 and he never doubted my ability even when I went through some awkward moments.”
As it stands, the Victorian will ride down the Champs Elysees with a glass of champagne in his hand, the yellow jersey on his back for the final stage, knowing he has reached the summit of cycling’s Mt Everest.
Needing to haul in 57 seconds to overall leader Andy Schleck, the 32-year-old obliterated his rival in this morning’s time trial to win by 1min 34secs.
He finished second on the stage behind German Tony Martin (HTC-Highroad), with former Tour champion Alberto Contador (SaxoBank-Sungard) third.
In becoming the first Australian to win the tour, Evans’ performance is sure to rank among the nation’s greatest sporting achievements.
All that is needed now is for Prime Minister Julia Gillard to declare a public holiday.
He is the first Australian to win in the tour’s 108-year history, almost 100 years after Brian Kirkham became the first Australian to ride in the famed international race in 1914.
“Public holiday?” he laughed.
“If it doesn’t hurt the economy, that’s fine by me. Thanks Julia.”
“I won’t enter into any more political discussions there because it’s been a nice day so far. I hope everyone in Australia is enjoying it so far.”
The typically understated Australian was keeping his celebrations in check after the stage, aware he needs to survive tomorrow’s 95km ride to Paris.
“I can’t quite believe I’ve done it,” Evans said.
“There’s always more to go. We’ve still got to cross the finish line in Paris tomorrow, that’s my main focus right now – actually getting through there without any trouble.
“Today I just went through the processes like we have a plan everyday. The plan was a,b,c,d and follow the plan and do the best we can.”
This year’s 3430km tour began on July 2 and so close had it been that the result came down to the 42.5km time trial starting and finishing in Grenoble.
Evans (BMC Racing) had started the time trial amid chaotic scenes knowing he was considered one of the best time trailers in the world.
His wife Chiara Passerini was in a Paris hotel and tweeting: “Come what may, I will love you until my dying day”.
Meanwhile, Schleck (Leopard Trek) sat just outside the start house looking nervous.
As Evans rode up the first climb, the Bries-et-Angonnes (475m), he had taken 14 seconds off Schleck’s time as the yellow jersey holder struggled to find his rhythm.
After both riders had rocketed through the first checkpoint at Vizille, 15km into the race, Evans had sliced 21 seconds off Schleck’s overall time – wiping off more than a third of his lead.
Then and there, Schleck was losing the Tour de France.
“I feel as if you’re all screaming in my hotel room,” an excited Passerini tweeted.
With good reason.
By the time Evans had whizzed past the checkpoint at Saint-Martin-d’Uriage, 27.5km into the course, he was 52 seconds ahead of Schleck, who was noticeably struggling on the rolling hills around Grenoble.
Only disaster could prevent the Australian from sporting immortality.
With 7km to go, he was just two seconds down on Martin. Not only was he looking at winning the Tour, he was looking at winning his second stage when it mattered most.
When he lunged across the line, he was seven seconds behind Martin, but was too exhausted to celebrate what he had just achieved.
A shattered Schleck – now a three-time runner-up said he would be back for another shot at the title next year.
“I’m quite disappointed because I wanted to win this Tour but I’m still only 26 and I will be back to win it,” he said before applauding Evans’ effort.
“Cadel raced the time trial of his life.”
Evans had gone into stage 20 after three gruelling days in the Alps, but appeared fresh and relaxed outside the BMC team bus upon his arrival at the start line.
While he was the overwhelming $1.45 favourite with the bookmakers, nagging thoughts must have lingered of his failures in 2007 and 2008 when he was in a similar position needing to eat up the time in the time trial and finished runner-up on both occasions.
In 2007, he had trailed Spaniard Alberto Contador by 1min 23secs and fell 23 seconds short.
The following year, he gave Spaniard Carlos Sastre a 1min 34sec advantage but again failed to mow him down, chewing just 21 seconds off the time.
Not this time, and an expectant nation at home applauded.
source: Herald Sun