There was a time, not very long ago, when the average fan’s perception of Cadel Evans was not entirely favorable. Clearly a huge talent, Evans’ demeanor suggested a lack of maturity, a tendency to whine and the distinct impression that the biggest prizes would elude him. Perhaps it was the influence of the late Aldo Sassi, perhaps it was winning a World Championship, perhaps it was getting married, but Evans finally got himself over the hump.
It was a patient and tempered effort that saw the Australian win last year’s Tour de France. Where once he might have bemoaned his bad luck or chided his teammates for not being more helpful, Evans finally assumed responsibility for his own destiny. Think back to Stage 18 of that Tour when he responded alone to the attack of Andy Schleck, dragging the Luxembourger back by sitting on the front of a chasing group, grinding out the gap and keeping Schleck in his GC sights. He neither panicked, nor asked for help. While it was the Stage 20 time trial that finally put him in yellow, it was the bravura performance on the way to the Galibier that won him the Tour.
Just how Evans transformed himself from a not-entirely-convincing contender to a worthy champion is a mystery. Somehow he dragged himself over that hump. From my perspective, the hump is as important as it is hard to define.
Following on from last week’s Group Ride, can we ask: Is Brad Wiggins over the hump? He’s won a handful of one week stage races, including this season’s Paris-Nice and Dauphiné. He has World Championships on the track, and time trial medals from World Championships on the road. He is highly accomplished. There is no doubt. But can he win a Grand Tour?
Third at last year’s Vuelta, fourth in the 2009 Tour, he is nearly there. But the distance between third and first in Paris is more than the two foot rise from the third podium step to the first. There is a mile of luck and a bit more in experience necessary to bridge that gap.
If you look at Wiggins, tilt your head to one side and squint just right, you can imagine that all the bluster he summons in the press, the sarcasm and arrogance that some interpret as supreme confidence, is just the opposite. It is the demeanor of an elite athlete still harboring doubts about his ability to mount those last two steps and a resentment perhaps that, despite already achieving so much, he is expected to do more.
Andy Schleck, who has now withdrawn from the 2012 Tour, finds himself in the same purgatory as Wiggins. “Winner” of the 2010 Tour after Alberto Contador’s doping conviction, Schleck has never won a stage race on the road as a full professional. He has done everything but, standing on consecutive podiums, winning white jerseys, taking stage wins, but never bridging that last, narrow gap, never making it over the hump.
What’s it about? Is it an unwillingness to improve his time trialling skills? Despite hemorrhaging time to his opponents in every time trial he rides, he steadfastly refuses to do the basic work to be better, or even in some cases to pre-ride the courses to know what challenges await him. Is it maybe a reluctance to attack? How many times have we seen young Andy looking around an elite group, waiting for someone else to make a move? Or are all of these things together indicative of being stuck in second place without the maturity to accept and conquer his shortcomings?
One rider who appears to have been born over the hump is Alberto Contador. Discount him as a doper if you will, but that seems too facile when you consider the mental approach and discipline the Spaniard has taken on his way to a string of impressive, if tainted, Grand Tour wins. He has been audacious when audacity was called for, calm when when he needed to be, strong when he was under attack from within his own team and imperious when accused of cheating. He is a rider of great talent, but also of supreme self-possession, and that, in essence, is what the hump is about. To be self-possessed is to understand your own outer limits, to accept that there is no one else who can take you there, and to have the focus to get there.
Now, it will be easy to read this post and flame it, just as it was easy for me to say that the guys who’ve won the Tour are over the hump and those who haven’t aren’t. In elevating Contador, who is cooling his heals after a doping positive, I am praising the wrong man. And yet, I can’t escape this feeling that what separates Evans and Contador from Wiggins and Schleck is not physical. There is something more. It falls under the umbrella of maturity and mental toughness, of luck and tactical nous. To win the Tour de France, the stars must align, but you must also be ready for them to align.
Until then, you train in Mallorca, you screw around with your nutrition, your race schedule and your bike set up. You change teams. You change coaches. You train on feel or you devote yourself to studying power numbers. You weigh your food on a scale. You switch roommates.
All just hoping to get over the hump.
Follow me on Twitter: @thebicyclerobot
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti