Photograph: Eddie Jim
IT HAS been almost five months since Cadel Evans has pedalled his bike in competitive fury.
That was on August 25, and the sixth stage of the US Pro Challenge when Evans withdrew citing a knee injury. In doing so, he drew the curtain on a season that was hindered by health issues and a lack of form.
For Evans, who turns 36 on February 14, his inconsistent form meant he missed the Ardennes classics in Belgium in April, failed to defend his Tour de France title in July and fell short of impressing in the London Olympic road race before pulling out of the Games' individual time trial.
It made many ask if the best days were behind Evans, who, with his wife Chiara Passerini, also began a new chapter of life by adopting an orphaned Ethiopian boy named Robel.
The answer will come with his results in 2013, especially in the Tour de France, in which Evans' 2011 victory will still be remembered as the crowning moment of his career for the simple fact that he was the first Australian to make the fabled yellow jersey his for keeps.
The fact remains, however, that at the dawn of a new year this season will be crucial to Evans.
What he can or can't do will impact on what he might do next year when he comes off contract with his team, BMC. That could determine how long his racing career lasts.
Evans knows as well as anyone what is at stake. With his health issues reportedly in check, his private life as a parent now more settled and a good off-season of recovery and training behind him, he should be able to see a clear pathway towards producing his best.
Evans may be an absent and missed figure from next week's national road titles and then the Tour Down Under, but in Europe his mind will still be very much on the job of winning.
The key factors to achieving that will be:
HIS PRIVATE LIFE AND HEALTH
Evans has never fallen to the perception that the adoption of his son – from the process itself to actually adapting to life as a parent – was a pressure that may have impeded his preparation. On the contrary, he has openly shown his joy at being a father. But no one can underestimate the pressures from the responsibilities of adoption. Evans should be more settled for the experience one year on since he and his wife brought Robel back from Ethiopia to their home in Stabio, Switzerland.
Evans is also reportedly on top of the infection that seemed to flare up whenever he stressed his body in races. That, with a longer-than-planned off-season, which included returning to Australia from October 29 to December 29 – albeit a trip that required a number of sponsorship appearances and charity rides – should allow Evans to start the year fresher than ever before.
THE TEAM AROUND CADEL
BMC should allow Evans to train and race with his most likely tour squad as much as possible, as basically happened in 2011. This not only enhances camaraderie, but an understanding of what Evans expects as their leader, and in turn his knowledge of what he can expect from them. Who will be in that team?
BMC will have a long list, but don't be surprised if it did not include world champion Philippe Gilbert or former world champion Thor Hushovd, whose ambitions may be better served by focusing on other races. BMC will look to American Tejay van Garderen (fifth and best young rider last year in the Tour) as first lieutenant to Evans, and call up Briton Steve Cummings and Frenchman Amael Moinard for the mountains.
For the flatter stages, look to German Michael Burghardt, Italian Manuel Quinziato and the Swiss duo of Steve Morabito and Micky Schar. American Brent Bookwalter, who rode superbly for Evans in 2011 when the road went up or was flat and was unlucky to miss selection last year, should be called back. While this year's Tour route is mountainous, BMC will also need a line-up suited for the team time trial, and strong riders in mind and body to fill the void of the retired George Hincapie, who had a huge role in marshalling the troops and protecting Evans.
CADEL'S RACE PROGRAM
Evans is a creature of habit and, understandably, if a race and training program works, he should stick to it. His career Tour results show one win, but apart from two dips in 2009 and 2010, they have been remarkably high for consistency – from eighth on debut in 2005 and before then-winner Lance Armstrong's disqualification last year for doping, to fourth in 2006, second in 2007 and 2008, 30th in 2009, 26th in 2010, first in 2011 and seventh in 2012. But there has been a suggestion that because of his extended off-season and a desire to get back to racing, the Tour of Oman (February 12-17) might be in the mix of possibilities as an extra race.
Evans' race program should otherwise be similar to what it was in 2011 when he won the Tour – and, yes, last year when he didn't win, but succumbed to health issues. After February, it will likely lead to Tirreno-Adriatico (March 9-15) because of its hills and time-trialling; the hilly Ardennes classics in Belgium in April and then stage races such as the Tour of Romandie and Criterium du Dauphine, which draw on a mix of disciplines that all-rounders like Evans must be strong in to win the Tour.
TRAINING CAMPS AND STRATEGY
Pre-Tour training camps are just as important as the lead-up races. Hence, Evans limits the quota of race days he has before a Tour. In a season, he usually has time for three training camps – one early team camp in Denia, Spain, plus two high-altitude camps before, in between or after the Tour of Romandie and Criterium du Dauphine with one or two teammates in either the Sierra Nevada of Spain or the Pyrenees and Alps. The latter are based at locations he keeps secret to maintain privacy between his long mountain rides. This year, with the return of a team time trial, BMC will also likely have a team time-trial camp, as it did in 2011 on the formula one race circuit at Zolder, Belgium, after which BMC was second in the team time trial at the Tour.
Joining BMC this year is Australian Allan Peiper as high-performance director. He was previously head sports director at Garmin-Sharp and will oversee equipment testing, training data, wind tunnel testing, velodrome testing, altitude training camps, race reconnaissance and nutritional needs.
He has also worked well with Evans before when both were on the Belgian Lotto team.
THE 2013 TOUR ROUTE
Evans likes this year's 3360-kilometre route because of its variety, unlike last year's when there was more than 100 kilometres of individual time trials which suited British winner Bradley Wiggins and his Sky team, which shut down the race from the stage-nine time trial that Wiggins won.
Evans prefers courses that offer unpredictability, and this year's route does that. After starting in Corsica, the race returns to mainland France for the stage-four 25-kilometre team time trial at Nice. The route also includes two individual time trials of 33 kilometres and 32 kilometres, and six mountain stages with four summit finishes. The first three of those summit finishes are: stage eight, 194 kilometres from Castres to Ax 3 Domaines in the Pyrenees; the 242-kilometre and longest 15th stage in Provence from Givors to Mont Ventoux; and the 168-kilometre 18th stage in the Alps from Gap to l'Alpe d'Huez, including two ascents up the famous ski station summit.
The fourth summit finish comes after another mountainous day – 204 kilometres from Bourg d'Oisans to Le Grand Bornand - on stage 20 from Annecy to Semnoz (125 kilometres).
THE 2013 FAVOURITES
Many believe that Evans, at 36, will be up against it in this attempt to win a second Tour should all contenders be fit and available. They include defending champion Wiggins, who also plans to race in the Giro d'Italia, Wiggins' teammate and fellow Briton Chris Froome, Canadian Ryder Hesjedal, who was the winner of last year's Giro d'Italia, Spaniard Alberto Contador and Luxembourg's Andy Schleck.
However, unlike his doubters, Evans prefers a race with plenty of contenders because it minimises the chances of one team controlling the race and invites a less predictable and more open race. Should they all be at the start in Corsica, Evans will be smiling.