Yellow-clad fans in the thousands thronged Melbourne’s city center yesterday to hail Cadel Evans as Australia’s first Tour de France champion took a 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 an 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 honor 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 Australian 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,” Victoria State Premier Ted Baillieu said, 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’ 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 honor 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 US today 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.
Evans has signed a contract extension with BMC and has been joined in the stable by world champion and sprint specialist Thor Hushovd for next year.
Hushovd snatched Evans’ title on the Australian’s home turf at the world championships in Geelong last year and wore the leader’s yellow jersey at the Tour de France for several stages this year.