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Out-riding the world

25 July, 2011

Cadel Evans, winner of the 2011 Tour de France, is now indisputably a giant of Australian sport. After he became a World Champion in 2009,  Simon Vincett met a self-contained, intently focused man who still loves to ride.

Photo by On Track Images

A family snapshot shows Cadel aged seven or eight pulling a mono on his BMX out in the paddock near his home in Armidale, NSW. The sun is setting and he’s getting the most out of the disappearing daylight hours. It’s the essence of a kid having fun on a bike and feeling the pure joy of riding we can all feel, whatever our age. The image appears on his website (labelled ‘The real Cadel’) and also among the early pictures in his new book, Cadel Evans: Close to flying.

We know Cadel as a serious character who frequently shows disappointment at his own performance, so it’s interesting to hear he is still in touch with the carefree pleasure his younger self seems to feel in that picture. “Not much has changed,” he says.

When you quiz Cadel, however, it doesn’t take long to realise there’s not much time in his life these days for carefree riding.

“For my job I have to ride 35 or 40,000km a year,” Cadel explains. “It doesn’t leave much time or energy to ride any more than that.”

Bike racing has been Cadel’s only career since he began competitive mountain biking professionally at age seventeen. With all those years of training and pursuing victory he has habitualised a phenomenal work ethic that most of us would find hard to reconcile with riding for pleasure. Cadel is adamant though that the joy is there, even if other things threaten to get in the way.

“I love what I do. That’s probably why I don’t do any pleasure rides – because all the rides I’m doing are already a pleasure. I still love riding my bike … Funnily enough as things have turned out, sometimes I have to fit my training in around the other important things I have to do for my job. Sometimes I sit back and think ‘This is ridiculous – I’m a full-time professional bike rider and I don’t have time to go training’ … at that point I usually start ringing people up and start cancelling appointments. Or I call an emergency training camp at an undisclosed location.”

Cadel has changed since the picture of him on his BMX but his craggy features are instantly recognisable. A rapidly growing television audience has followed his 2007, 2008 and 2009 campaigns for the yellow jersey in the Tour de France and his efforts and successes were widely reported. From watching him contend day-in-day-out with the elite of world cycling we all know his dimpled chin and permanently furrowed brow.

Photo by On Track Images

In real life, Cadel is a notably compact man – his watch appears large on his thin wrist. His face and neck reveal him as a cyclist – they are weathered from a life spent riding in all conditions. In manner, Cadel is reserved but attentive. When I introduce myself he checks my details against his schedule before we proceed. During the interview his blue-grey eyes scan every detail of what’s going on around us, perhaps out of the habit of a cunning strategist of the peloton – perhaps as an obsessive personality.

Cadel is certainly obsessed with what he does and sees much of the meaning of his life in his chosen sport: “Whether it’s competitive or non-competitive for me is not important. But that was my motivation for writing the book: to promote sport and particularly cycling as sport.” Around the Bay in a Day riders might remember Cadel’s letter to participants of the 2009 event about effective eating in preparation for the ride.

There’s something else about that snapshot of Cadel mucking about on his BMX: he’s alone. Behind him the countryside is empty. Such is the environment in which Cadel’s character developed. As an only child, much of his upbringing was in a single-parent family. He grew up in the country, firstly in the remote community of Bamyili, 80km east of Katherine in the Northern Territory, then on a property outside Armidale in NSW and then in semi-rural Plenty on the outskirts of Melbourne. These locations provided endless opportunities for solitary exploration on his bike, to which Cadel became accustomed. Whether training on his mountain bike or on the road, solitary time remains a constant in Cadel’s life.

Though habituated to solitude, there are two people dear to Cadel: his Mum and his wife Chiara. Into Cadel’s quiet European life of training and racing in 2002 came his now-wife Chiara Passerini. She was from a neighbouring village in Italy and her uncle encouraged her to meet this Australian cyclist. Though she wasn’t a cycling fan and Cadel was not a musician (Chiara is a concert pianist and choral singer) they found a common bond.

Cadel is obviously devoted to Chiara and greatly values her companionship and understanding. Many of the recent images of Cadel celebrating his world championship win show Cadel crouching down on the podium to share a kiss with Chiara. During the interview he wears his wedding band on a fine leather cord around his neck.

Cadel smiles when conversation turns to Chiara. She contributes helpful emotional insight to Cadel’s book, such as her passionate account of the relief of his victory in the World Championship.

“We were there to support Cadel throughout the race no matter how he went; we were there to say, ‘Hey we’re having fun with you. Just keep riding because you love it!’ … And then it did happen. He won! … I never thought it would be possible to cry so much. It came out and it was because of happiness, because winning the world championships is the perfect victory for a cyclist wanting to prove he is the best in the world. I cried for those who have always believed in Cadel, not just those who were interested when he was going well.”

Cadel confesses, “She sees all the ridiculous things as well, whereas not many people see that. She’s the one person who sees, other than me, everything I do.”

The other keystone in Cadel’s emotional life is his mother, Helen Cocks. Cadel is quick to point out she is a Bicycle Victoria member. Helen encouraged young Cadel to ride to school, and mother and son would also ride together to the local pool. Cadel soon discovered mountain bike racing, however, and it became his passion.

Pictures of Helen with Cadel at the Tour de France, suggest the pair retain the symbiosis they established as a nuclear family of two. It seems his mother is a constant in Cadel’s life, ever-present with support and advice, despite most often being on the other side of the world.

Cadel’s return to Australia each summer in the European off-season is a chance for him to catch up with Helen but also to revisit special places. For their honeymoon Cadel and Chiara went to the Northern Territory where Cadel grew up and then drove all over western NSW tracing the sights of Cadel’s youth and visiting his father. Chiara always accompanies Cadel to Australia and has seen much of Australia with him.

A place especially dear to Cadel is the Kinglake region of mountain biking tracks where he began seriously pursuing riding competitively.

“I often go on the very same trails I went on years ago around Kinglake. I’m not sure if I’m going to look forward to it this year because all the trails have been burnt now. I don’t know what to expect. I’m a bit scared about that actually. I left just before the fires.”

When asked what he is likely to be doing in five years, Cadel is his famously obtuse self, saying “there’s a possibility I might not be racing”. But he follows that with what seems to be a more considered answer:

“I wouldn’t mind a little more free time – time to myself and time for my family – but otherwise it’s fine. I really like what I do and I hope to do it well for quite a few more years yet.”

Winning the Tour de France at last in 2011. Photo: Reuters

Cadel Evans: Close to flying by Cadel Evans and Rob Arnold is published by Hardie Grant Books. RRP $45.00 (hardback)

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