Cadel Evans’s Tour de France victory marked Australia’s arrival as a major player in world cycling, officials and former riders said, as his breakthrough win drew comparisons with the country’s greatest sporting feats.
Evans, 34, became the first southern-hemisphere champion in the sport’s most-prestigious race yesterday, winning the 21- stage event by 1 minute, 34 seconds. He’s the third non-European in 108 years to take the yellow jersey home after Greg LeMond and Lance Armstrong of the U.S.
“This has put us on the map,” Graham Fredericks, Cycling Australia’s chief executive officer, said yesterday at the Bike & Lifestyle Show in Sydney. “We’re here to tell the Europeans and the North Americans that Australia’s here to play seriously.”
With his victory, Evans joined cricketer Donald Bradman, swimmer Dawn Fraser and the 1983 America’s Cup-winning sailing crew of Australia II among Australia’s greatest sporting champions, Melbourne’s Age newspaper said in an opinion piece.
Evans earned the right to wear the yellow jersey into Paris after overcoming a 57-second deficit to Andy Schleck of Luxembourg in a time-trial on the next-to-last day. He crossed the finish line yesterday following a 59-mile ride from Creteil in which the leading cyclists, abiding by tradition, didn’t compete for places in the overall standings.
The nation of 22.6 million people, of whom 2 million cycle regularly according to Cycling Australia, has been sending riders to the Tour de France since about 1911, said Stephen Hodge, a vice president of the Sydney-based governing body who rode in six Tours in the 1980s and 1990s.
‘100 Years in Making’
“This win is 100 years in the making and Cadel’s done it for us,” Hodge said. “If anyone was going to do it from Australia, he’s always been the guy who would do it.”
Evans, who divides his time between homes in Switzerland and Barwon Heads, Australia, started as a mountain biker and won World Cup series in 1998 and 1999 before switching to a road bike. He says his 5-foot-8 frame made him “completely unsuitable” for most Australian school sports because they required speed, size or both.
“It’s strange that I could become a professional athlete,” Evans, the great grandson of a Welsh immigrant to Australia’s Northern Territory, says on his website.
Evans isn’t likely to return to Australia until the end of October after the European season ends, Cycling Australia’s Fredericks said. In the meantime, officials plan to capitalize on his time in the spotlight to lift the sport’s profile.
“The corporate market out there is showing a lot more interest and this will certainly help,” Fredericks said in an interview. “We have to be very focused and structured, it’s no use just taking a lump of cash out of a spike in interest and stuffing it. We’ve got to make sure that we’re delivering and that we’re giving good value for it.”
Evans’s ride to victory on the Champs-Elysees yesterday was the most-watched Tour de France stage in Australian television history with a peak of almost 2.5 million viewers nationally, according to SBS, which has been broadcasting the race for 21 years. Stages typically finish between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. local time on Australia’s east coast.
“There’s no doubt Cadel’s win will have a huge impact on the future growth of the sport in Australia,” Ken Shipp, SBS’s head of sport, said in a statement.
At the Bike & Lifestyle Show in Sydney yesterday, the BMC Racing Team stand was among the most popular as patrons flocked to get a glimpse of Evans’s bike and purchase replica jerseys.
“As many as we can pull out of the bag, they’re walking out the door,” Chris Thomas, BMC’s licensee in Australia, said in an interview. “Cadel’s victory will mean a greater profile for cycling in Australia, which for me as a member of the cycling community is as big a win as it is for the brand.”
Evans’s triumph shows the sport is expanding outside Europe and will boost popularity and lure sponsors from Australia and Asia, according to Daniel Malbranque, former general secretary of the riders’ association.
Katusha, backed by OAO Gazprom, fielded the first all- Russian team at the Tour de France. Also this year, Guadeloupe’s Yohann Gene of French team Europcar was the first black entrant in the race, reported L’Equipe newspaper, whose parent company Groupe Amaury owns the Tour. An Australian squad called GreenEDGE is seeking a license for top-tier events in 2012.
Tour Down Under
“Cycling is not just about Europe anymore,” Malbranque said in an interview from Perpignan, France. “The money is in Asia, not Europe.”
In 2008, Australia’s Tour Down Under became the first race outside Europe to join the Aigle, Switzerland-based Union Cycliste Internationale’s World Tour. Last week, the governing body and the Tour de France organizer announced details of the inaugural Oct. 5-9 Tour of Beijing.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we see the first presence from China at the Tour de France soon,” Brian Cookson, a member of the UCI management committee, said in an interview.
Evans, who overcame previous injury setbacks and runner-up disappointments to take the yellow jersey south of the equator for the first time, is a popular winner, Malbranque added.
“He’s a human champion,” he said, adding the Australian had frequently made reference to his former Italian trainer Aldo Sassi who died from cancer last year. “He’s a champion who knows how to cry.”
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