Hard road ... Evans in Barwon Heads last month. Photo: Eddie Jim
IT HAS been almost five months since Cadel Evans pedalled his bike in competitive fury.
For that moment, the Australian's race diary turns back to August 25, and to stage six of the US Pro Challenge in the United States when Evans withdrew from the race citing a knee injury - in doing so he drew the curtain on a season hindered by health issues and poor 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 then fell short of impressing in the Olympic Games road race before pulling out of the Games time-trial event.
It also 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 Ethiopian orphaned boy named Robel.
The answer will come with his results during the 2013 season, especially in the Tour in which Evans's victory in 2011 will still be remembered as the crowning moment of his career for the simple fact that he was the first Australian to do so. This season will be crucial to Evans.
What he can or can't do will affect what he might do next year when he comes off contract with his BMC team. That in turn could determine how long his racing career will last. 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 might be conspicuous by his absence from next week's national road titles and 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:
Private life and health
Evans has never cited Robel's adoption - from the process itself to adapting to life as a parent afterwards - as a pressure that might 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 at Stabio in Switzerland. Evans is also reportedly on top of the infection that seemed to flare up whenever he stressed his body in race situations. That, with a longer than planned off-season that included returning to Australia from October 29 to December 29 - a trip that included a number of sponsorship appearances and charity rides - should allow Evans to start the year fresher than ever before.
The team around him
BMC should allow Evans to train and race with his likely Tour squad as much as possible, as basically happened in 2011. This not only enhances camaraderie, but an understanding by them 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 does not include world champion Philippe Gilbert or former world champion Thor Hushovd, whose ambitions might be better served by focusing on other races. BMC will look to American Tejay van Garderen (fifth and best young rider last year) 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 Schaer, while 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 to the team time trial that is back, and strong riders in mind and body to fill the void of retired George Hincapie, who played a huge role in marshalling the troops and protecting Evans.
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 his debut in 2005 and before 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 last year. However, there have been suggestions that because of his extended off-season and a desire to get back to racing, the Tour of Oman (February 12 to 17) might be in the mix as an extra race. His 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 6 to 12) because of its hills and time-trialling demands; the hilly Ardennes classics in Belgium in April, and then stage races such as the Tour de Romandie and Criterium du Dauphine that draw on a mix of disciplines in which all-rounders such as Evans must be strong to win the Tour such as time trials and climbing - but on mountains rather than hills.
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 de Romandie and Criterium du Dauphine with one or two teammates in either the Sierra Nevada of Spain or Pyrenees and Alps. The latter are held at secret locations 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 they did in 2011 on the formula one racing circuit at Zolder, Belgium, after which they were second in the team time trial at the Tour. Joining BMC this year is Australian Allan Peiper as high performance director. The former head sports director at Garmin-Sharp will oversee equipment testing, training data, wind-tunnel testing, velodrome testing, altitude training camps, race reconnaissance and nutritional needs for the team.
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 where there was more than 100km of individual time trialling to suit the winner Bradley Wiggins and his Sky team, who shut down the race from the stage nine time trial, which Wiggins won. Evans prefers courses that offer unpredictability, and this year's route does exactly that. After starting in Corsica, the race returns to mainland France for a stage four 25km team time trial at Nice. The route also includes two individual time trials of 33km and 32km, and six mountain stages with four summit finishes. The first three of those summit finishes are: stage eight, 194km from from Castres to Ax 3 Domaines in the Pyrenees; the 242km stage 15, the longest, in Provence from Givors to Mont Ventoux; and the 168km 18th stage in the Alps from Gap to l'Alpe d'Huez over 168km that includes two ascents up the famed ski station summit. The fourth summit finish comes after another mountainous day - stage 19 from Bourg d'Oisans to Le Grand Bornand (204km) - on sage 20 from Annecy to Semnoz (125km).
Many believe that Evans, at 36, will be up against it to win a second Tour should all contenders be fit and available to race. They include defending champion Wiggins, who also plans to race in the Giro d'Italia; Wiggins's teammate and fellow Englishman Chris Froome, Giro champion Canadian Ryder Hesjedal; Spaniard Alberto Contador and Luxembourg's Andy Schleck.
However, Evans prefers a race with an abundance of contenders because it minimises the chances of one team dominating and controlling the race, and ensures a less predictable and open tour. Should they all be at the start in Corsica, Evans will be smiling.