Growing up on a remote Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory, Cadel Evans would ride a bike on the red dirt from early in the morning until his mother came looking for him at night. No siblings, no neighbours close by, but a BMX bike, the family dog and a desire to explore. At just 20, Cadel would become the youngest winner of a mountain bike World Cup Event. He would become the oldest post-war Tour de France winner in 2011, aged 34.
As a part of the Swisse Series, we spoke about an isolated childhood, almost dying after being kicked by a foal, Lance Armstrong, cleaning up the sport, the pain of the Tour, and his adopted son.
HM: Your first bike?
CE: A 16-inch orange BMX. My ticket to the world.
HM: I heard you had the choice of two, and you’re disappointed with your choice, retrospectively.
CE: That’s right! Dad and I walked into the bike shop, and there were two bikes. There was an orange one and a red one, and I knew the red one looked better, but I think I was two or three years old, and decided on the orange one because it was the closest.
HM: It gives every Australian youngster hope. From a 16-inch orange BMX, to winning the Tour de France.
CE: It all started on training wheels, on dirt roads, by myself.
HM: I hear that when your mother wanted to find you, she would call the dog, and wherever the dog came from, she would head into the scrub and try and find you.
CE: Yes, we lived in a remote Aboriginal community called Barunga, and I’d often go exploring on my little BMX. The dog followed me everywhere I went, he was my little protector. We’re talking about 1979 in the Northern Territory, so traffic wasn’t a big deal at the time!
HM: That’s probably why you’ve turned out as you are, that freedom, spirit and that sense of adventure and wanting to conquer?
CE: I got used to being out there on my own on the bike, hours in adverse conditions. Rain, snow, hail, heat. It was a really useful tool to have for training and preparation for the big races some 30 years later.
HM: As a child you suffered a horrific injury thanks to one of your horses. You’re lucky to be alive.
CE: I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was very lucky not to be killed. We had a couple of foals, and I just went in to collect them for feeding. The horse got a bit excited and clipped me around the ears. It cut my ear, blood everywhere, and I woke up six days later in intensive care.
HM: Fractured skull, and brain damage was suspected.
CE: The risk of brain damage was really high, but I was able to escape that. I was in hospital for a few weeks, and slowly but surely I was able to restore myself to full strength and fitness, many, many, many years of headaches later.
HM: How many stitches?
CE: 28. I look back on the whole situation as something that’s made me who I am today, and in my chosen profession, it helped me prepare for it better.
HM: All the suffering you’ve been through must mean that when you’re struggling on a particular stage in a tour, in the back of your mind you’re constantly thinking, “I’ve been through worse”?
CE: That’s right. I think whatever situation you are in, you have to realise people have always been in more pain, been in a worse situation, got out of a bigger hole.
HM: Somebody told me that you are not only very efficient at changing tyres, but if you see someone on the side of the road, you’ll often pull over and help them out. Is that right?
CE: I’ve been saved a few times myself, but I try to always keep a spare in my car, because too many times I have been stuck in the middle of nowhere, with no spare tyre to put on. I find that to be the beauty of cycling, in that it’s a race against mates when everyone is fit and healthy, but a great show of mateship helping your friends out when they’re having a hard time.
HM: What’s the time for Cadel Evans to fix or patch a tyre?
CE: I remember I was once timed at about one minute and 10 seconds from puncturing to getting back on and rolling again.
HM: You’ve been involved in one of Australia’s greatest sporting moments. That’s really significant.
CE: I’m glad you’ve said it like that — that’s nice to hear. When you are on the other side of the world, pursuing your dreams, it’s hard to get a gauge on how much support you are receiving back at home and how much it means to people. After all these years, I’m not sure the significance of it has actually fully sunk in yet.
HM: You weren’t aware of it at the time, what it meant?
CE: I wasn’t aware of how much people were invested in it — I am really pleased Australia was riding with me.
HM: After your win in the Tour, is it true that you asked your mother whether anyone would turn up to the parade?
CE: Yes, I was worried it would be a no-show. I can recall getting to the airport after the race in 2011, and there was a three-story-high billboard that read “Congratulations Cadel”. I was so humbled by the support. Five years onwards, I have plenty of time to meet up with and ride with those who showed faith in me during my career.
HM: After the Tour win, Julia Gillard was the Prime Minister. Where were you when she called to congratulate you?
CE: I was in the bath, reflecting on life. The media officer of the team at the time knocked at the door and said, “Cadel! The Prime Minister’s on the phone. Have you got a minute?”, and of course I got out and took her call. “Hello Julia, how are you?” That was one of those funny moments but, you know, you have to have a bath at some point during the day don’t you?
HM: It is good to wash daily if you can. Jeff Kennett wanted to rename the West Gate Bridge after you. Now that would have been an honour, but also would have been frustrating: everyone cursing at you all the time.
CE: That would have been, yes, an honour. Exactly. “Oh, I’m stuck on the Cadel Bridge. I’m stuck on Cadel.” Could you imagine that? The most ironic part of that would have been naming a bridge in honour of a bike rider that doesn’t have a bike lane!
HM: Do you gain weight or lose it over the course of the Tour?
CE: If your Tour de France is going well, your body’s recovering well, and you will maintain a stable weight. If you have a significant change in weight, that’s not a good sign, and one of the early signs that perhaps things aren’t going too well. I would start and finish the tour at 68kg.
HM: One of the key ingredients when you measure an athlete is their longevity. You won World Cups on the mountain bike in the late ‘90s, the youngest to do so, and then became the oldest since the war to win the Tour in 2011.
CE: That’s something I’m very proud of in my career. I didn’t win a lot of races over a long period of time, but I won a variety of races from mountain to road. I think that showed my diversity. I think consistency over a long period of time was probably my strength, and that was also helped by the way I looked after myself as a youngster. I had the opportunity to get to a high level of mountain bike riding when I was younger, competing in World Cups and Olympic Games between 1995 and 2001. I then had the opportunity to become a road rider, so I had a whole new set of goals to work for, and renewed motivation. I was able to give my all from when I was 17 right through to my 37th birthday.
HM: I was speaking to Dwayne Dunn, one of Australia’s leading jockeys. I said to him, “In a distance race, do you talk to each other?” He said, “Sometimes. Down the back straight we will chat — yesterday I was asking someone how they went on a little par-three the day before”. How much chatter is there on the Tour, when you’re riding along?
CE: Yeah, certainly on the Tour we talk, as you’re going, there’s a bit of chatter. It’s usually rumours. Conversation about who might be changing teams, or the race. A frequently asked question amongst riders is “How are your legs going?”.
HM: On rumours … when Lance Armstrong was riding, was he the dominant force in all aspects? Did he dominate conversation, and every room that he was in?
CE: I was always respectful of him and his results, of course, but also respectful for his private space because, especially on the Tour, everyone wants to talk to Lance.
HM: Were you mates with him?
CE: I’d say we had a professional relationship. I’d say hello and he was always friendly towards me.
HM: You heard the rumours about Lance and other riders for years. How do you compartmentalise that and just race?
CE: I learnt at a young age that you have to learn to put a lot of things out of your mind. You have to learn to ignore anything that’s going to harm your confidence. If you’re constantly thinking about others when you’re about to race, that’s going to undermine your confidence as well as your own performance.
HM: So when it all blew up in the end, did it surprise you?
CE: It certainly surprised me that he was caught, but it was the way that he was caught that really surprised me. He wasn’t caught through drug testing; he was caught through police investigations. This acts as a great deterrent to those aspiring to take the path of performance-enhancing drugs — even if they are sure they can beat the drug testers, there are other ways they can be caught.
HM: Is there anything the sport isn’t doing that they should be in terms of trying to catch the cheats?
CE: In terms of the fight against doping within the capabilities of science, I am convinced that cycling can do nothing more than what it is. It’s being honest, transparent. They’re not holding anything back. There’s other aspects of society that could be doing a lot more. But of course, that’s the world we live in: politics and government, that happens.
HM: You are well read — how do you think Donald Trump is going to go leading the free world?
CE: The question is; how much is Donald actually going to be doing? I hope they realise in America that whatever trouble they get us into, they’ve got to get us out.
HM: It is concerning. You’ve got a young son, six years of age, with an incredible story. He was found abandoned as a two-year-old in southern Ethiopia, is that right?
CE: He was found in a town in the south of Ethiopia. No trace of his parents, and when there’s no parents, these children get put up for adoption. Now, of course, I am very much his father. I love him unbelievably. I remember looking at him when he was two maybe three years old and thinking to myself, “Wow! This little guy has been through and faced a lot more hardship than a lot of us adults in this world will face in 50 years!”. I’m a proud father of an amazing son, it’s incredible how much children can teach us about ourselves.
HM: He’s got you covered on one important riding fact: he lost his training wheels earlier than you.
CE: He lost them much earlier than I did — he loves to ride.
HM: He’s going to have to come ride in the Swisse Cadel Evans People’s Ride at some point.
CE: A proud day for me.
HM: The tonnes of lycra that has been sold since you kept everyone awake at night in the Tour. The ‘Lycra Revolution’ — how much do you think you’re responsible for?
CE: I’d like to think that I’ve brought a lot of people into a healthier, active and happier lifestyle. Some people in the industry say about 80 per cent. I am sorry that we have to see so many middle-aged men in coffee shops in lycra though!
THE SWISSE PEOPLE’S RIDE AND THE CADEL EVANS GREAT OCEAN ROAD RACE IS ON BETWEEN JANUARY 26 AND 29. WWW.CADELEVANS GREATOCEANROADRACE.COM.AU
Enter here for your chance to win a trip to Italy, $5,000 cash and a lunch and bike ride around Lake Como with Cadel.