Aussies hail Evans as Tour champ rides into town
MELBOURNE, Aug 12 — Yellow-clad fans in their thousands thronged Melbourne’s city centre on Friday to hail Cadel Evans as Australia’s first Tour de France champion took a ceremonial ride into town after returning from Europe.
Three weeks after his champagne-soaked ride to the finish line along the Champs-Elysees, the slender 34-year-old once again donned the yellow jersey, grinning as he shook hands with applauding fans banked five-and-six deep along the roadside.
Evans is the only Australian to win the Tour since the first edition in 1903 and his victory has been feted as one of the country’s greatest all-time sporting achievements by local media.
For the steely BMC Racing Team rider, who calls the Swiss Alps town of Stabio home for most of the year and fiercely guards his privacy, the attention has been a happy, if somewhat overwhelming, surprise.
“I can say overwhelmed but that would be understatement for this month at least,” an emotional Evans told a crowd of thousands gathered at a public reception at Melbourne’s Federation Square.
“It’s an honour just to be able to be here today, enjoying being here in yellow. It’s just been a great ride and it’s not over yet.”
After being escorted by a team of bike-riding children to the square, Evans was congratulated by Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard in a video message beamed on a big screen before fans in the crowd unveiled a huge banner emblazoned with the yellow jersey.
A large television audience at home had stayed up until the early hours to watch the closing stretches of the Tour as Evans defied mechanical setbacks before blitzing Luxembourg’s Schleck brothers, Andy and Frank, in the penultimate stage time-trial.
“We have been charmed by his humility and now he’s home,” said Victoria state premier Ted Baillieu, resplendent in a cornflower-yellow shirt and tie.
“Night after night as we sat in the dark in the wee, small hours on the edges of our beds, there was a collective raising of our heartbeats.
“We were all well and truly spellbound.”
Few countries revere their sports icons like Australia, where captaincy of the test cricket team is dubbed the second-highest office in the land behind the prime minister.
Evans’s stunning win has also given Australia a boost during a relatively lean period of sporting success with the country’s cricket team in the doldrums and Lleyton Hewitt’s 2002 Wimbledon title a distant memory.
Debate has sprung up over the best way to honour Evans, with politicians suggesting naming a bridge or a bike-path in the seaside town of Barwon Heads, where he spends his time when in Australia, after him. Evans is originally from the remote farming town of Katherine.
Evans heads off to the United States tomorrow to prepare for a stage race in Colorado but he said he was just happy to get a hug from his mother during his whirlwind homecoming.
“There’s one person that’s been with me all the time, through all the journey, whether it was the first 16-inch BMX I got at age three or the first mountain bike I had at age 14,” he said of his mother, Helen Cocks.
NO EGO CLASH
Evans has signed a contract extension with BMC and has been joined in the stable by world champion and sprint specialist Thor Hushovd for 2012.
Hushovd snatched Evans’s title on the Australian’s home turf at the world championships in the port city of Geelong last year and wore the leader’s yellow jersey at the Tour de France for several stages this year.
Evans played down concerns the partnership with the burly Norwegian might spark a destabilising clash of egos that could harm his Tour defence.
“Regarding Thor coming to the team, the main objective of (team president) Jim Ochowicz was to get some guys onto the team to get some results early so they wouldn’t rely just on me for race wins at the start of the year,” he said.
“I said: ‘Look Jim, you want to bring a sprinter to the team, I don’t want to ride with a sprinter, because I’ve done that and I’ve done my share.’
“‘If I do the Tour I want to do it for the win.’
“I was fairly clear about that and Jim was accepting of that, so it’s under that basis that Thor comes to our team.” — Reuters