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Cadel Evans – the first and only Australian to win the Tour de France – is an Australian sporting legend and undoubtedly someone to admire. But what can we learn from his incredible career?
Ten years on from Cadel Evans’ incredible victory in the Tour de France, there’s a risk of the modern-day narrative diverging from the extraordinary reality of that triumphant ride down the Champs-Élysées, which was the culmination of a lifetime’s work.
‘An Australian winning the Tour de France? People talk now like it was always going to happen, but that’s a far cry from how things felt back then,’ says Evans’ manager and Deakin alumnus, Jason Bakker.
‘Quite simply, it’s one of the greatest achievements in sporting history.’
It’s true Evans had come close, with runner-up finishes in 2007 and 2008, and had led the previous year’s Tour, but the ultimate celebration in the yellow jersey was proving elusive. When he crossed the line in Paris, Evans became the oldest winner of the Tour since the Second World War, having fought off fierce competition from the Schleck brothers for a career-defining, life-changing victory.
That moment, though, is just the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface, Evans’ story is a triumph of dedication and self-efficacy, which encapsulates lessons for us all.
Evans’ story began in Barunga in the Northern Territory before transitioning to a remote area of Northern New South Wales, where life was often solitary and friendships existed at the end of long bike rides on dirt roads.
‘I’m grateful for my childhood,’ Evans says. ‘It taught me to be independent, both in a practical sense and psychologically, which underpinned my later success.’
At an early age, Evans had instilled inner belief and trust through real-world experiences. He continually proved to himself that he could take on and overcome challenges and, whilst he always moved swiftly to the next, he was building a huge well of resilience upon which to draw.
For this reason, Evans encourages lifelong personal and professional growth, even when it requires us to seek out problems to solve. That’s probably why he has been such a leading voice, over many years, on the issue of gender equity in sport.
Evans remembers when cycling became a passion – in large part due to the positive influence of his good friend Matt Farrell.
‘Matt encouraged me to ride, persuaded me to go to my first race and used to come to my house to watch the Tour de France,’ says Evans. ‘I’m indebted to him.’
Evans chose his influencers carefully and recommends others do the same. People like Matt, his early professional cycling role models and his mum Helen, who were supportive and constructive, helped unlock his potential. They believed in him, even when the negative voices loomed large.
‘The single most difficult thing in my career was dealing with people who doubted me and told me things were unachievable,’ Evans recalls. ‘In the end, I chose to stop listening.’
The saying goes ‘it always seems impossible until it’s done’, and Australia’s first ever winner of the Tour de France is glad he found a way to shut out the noise, using cynicism and scepticism as motivators.
'The single most difficult thing in my career was dealing with people who doubted me and told me things were unachievable,'
2011 Tour de France Winner
‘I didn’t spend time questioning whether I was good enough. I simply asked what I needed to do to achieve my goals,’ Evans says.
‘From there it was about learning – about the process, how to train and fuel myself. In 1991 there were very few cycling magazines, so I got my training and nutrition information from books in the school library!’
Evans had a clear, long-term vision, the discipline to keep working towards it, and a curiosity that served him well. This proved a potent combination as the journey progressed, especially when faced with the criticism that came with back-to-back second place finishes in the Tour.
‘Whether you’re the best or the millionth best at something, it’s human nature to have self-doubt,’ Evans says.
‘After 2007 and 2008, people were stopping me in the street and asking me whether I could win the Tour. It felt like they doubted me and it had started to erode my self-belief.’
However, after taking time to reflect, the idea emanating from some corners of the cycling and sports media that finishing second twice meant he couldn’t achieve the ultimate didn’t make sense to Evans. For him it was proof he was almost there.
‘I trusted the process, kept things simple, invested in my preparation and used the near-misses to top up my motivation.’
During these challenging times, Evans found complementary support from his coach at the time, Dr Aldo Sassi, who wasn’t interested in pep talks or motivation. He dealt almost exclusively in numbers.
Whilst not all of us can access a scientist or mathematician to present us with cold, hard facts about our capability and potential, the lesson is a valuable one. Stripping away emotion and subjectivity and seeing ourselves as others see us are special gifts.
So, a decade on from one of Australian sport’s greatest days, when asked for a message – a governing thought from decades of experience, if you like – it’s a simple one:
‘Believe in yourself,’ he says with a wry smile.
‘No matter what your passion or dream is, assuming it doesn’t hurt anything or anyone, pursue it with everything you’ve got. It’s your life, so live it to your own aspirations and expectations, not those of others.’
In 2019, Cadel Evans AM was awarded a Deakin Honorary Doctorate for his inspiring example of achievement through dedication and determination, and for promoting gender equity in sport and health through cycling.
Deakin University is a proud partner of the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race, as the naming rights partner of the Deakin University Elite Women’s Road Race.
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