Rainbow Evans and Tactical Failures

He launched a winning solo attack on the final lap of a testing World Road Race circuit, his rivals all looked at each other, one half wondering whether they could summon the energy required to chase him down, while the other half were left watching the race winning move wondering whether their eyes were deceiving them. He launched another solo break on Stage 5 of the Tour Down Under, he was eventually caught and accompanied to the finish line by Luis Léon Sanchez, Alejandro Valverde and Peter Sagan, but on what remains one of the most exciting days of racing this season, it was his attack that sparked the race into life. He has now just won the first classic of his career at Fléche Wallonne beating Joaquim Rodriguez and Alberto Contador in an uphill battle to the top of the Mur de Huy. At age 33, Cadel Evans is in danger of becoming one of the most exciting riders in the peloton.

After two relatively anonymous seasons from Alessandro Ballan last year and Paolo Bettini in 2008, it is fantastic to again see the rainbow jersey of World Champion winning a major race and challenging the world’s other top riders. Evans is one of only five men along with Ferdi Kubler, Rik van Steenbergen, Eddy Merckx and Claude Criquielion to have won Fléche Wallonne while wearing the rainbow jersey. Since Claude Criquielion’s Fléche Wallonne victory in 1985, there have been only five riders who have won any classic as reigning World Champion. In 2006, Tom Boonen won the Tour of Flanders and Paolo Bettini won the Tour of Lombardy, both as World Champions. In 1998, Oscar Camenzind won the Tour of Lombardy and in 1987 Moreno Argentin outfoxed Criquielion and Stephen Roche to win Liége-Bastogne-Liége while wearing the Rainbow Jersey.

World Champion Cadel Evans celebrates winning Fléche Wallonne, his first ever classics victory.

Much is made of the ‘Curse of the Rainbow Jersey‘ where a World Champion of has a stinker of a season while clad in the revered jersey. One of the contributing factors toward this unfortunate affliction is the instant recognition that the jersey bestows upon the wearer. It is surely embedded in the minds of other racers that the Rainbow Jersey is a threat to the race winning chances of others. Attacks by the World Champion are marked more diligently and are chased down quicker. ‘You can’t let him get up the road, he was good enough to win the Worlds!’. This mindset stifles the current World Champion’s race winning aspirations which makes any victories earned even harder to attain than usual. Along with the extra media pressure and public relations obligations that can fatigue a rider, this is the root cause of ‘The Curse’.

Cadel Evans is now laughing in the face of this curse. The World Road Race Championship in Mendrisio last September was the first one day win of his career, he has now just won his second at Fléche Wallonne. Having come close to victory in the past two years (2nd in 2008, 5th in 2009) the Aussie got things spot on last Wednesday. He never panicked and attempted to accelerate more than was necessary or beyond his capabilities. He bided his time, waited until all in front of him were spent (as happened to him in 2008 and 2009) and smoothly sped past the leaders to take the victory, although his victory salute was not so smooth. Evans now joins the likes of Andy Schleck, Lance Armstrong, Tony Rominger and Bjarne Riis as a rider who has won a classic and finished on the podium of the Tour de France.

This coming Sunday is Liége-Bastogne-Liége, the final Ardennes classic and the oldest classic of them all. ‘La Doyenne’ is over 50km longer than Fléche Wallonne and was won last year by Andy Schleck with a solo break from 20km out. This year, Amstel Gold and Fléche Wallonne have seen bunches of 20 and 60 riders respectively, amass at the foot of the final climb where a chaotic sprint to the top ensued. I daresay that the race on Sunday will not follow this pattern. What is more likely is that a group of 5 or 10 riders will get away on the Côte de la Redoute (with 35km to go) or on the Côte de la Roche aux Faucons (with 20km to go) and a rider will jump away solo from that group before the finish. Before the relatively new Amstel Gold race was conceived, winning Fléche Wallonne and Liége-Bastogne-Liége was known as the Ardennes double. Over the years, six riders have achieved the Ardennes double, Ferdie Kubler (twice, back-to-back), Stan Ockers, Eddy Merckx, Moreno Argentin, Davide Rebellin and Alejandro Valverde. Evans will be hoping he can add his name to this list come Sunday.

The Schleck brothers celebrating after Andy won Liége-Bastogne-Liége last year.

He’ll be facing stiff opposition from his former team mate and winner of Amstel Gold, Phillipe Gilbert, former winner Alejandro Valverde, Tour champion Alberto Contador and both of the Schleck brothers, Damiano Cunego and Joaquin Rodriguez should also be there or thereabouts again.

So far in the Ardennes classics, Frank and Andy Schleck have been frustrating to watch. Both have looked very strong but as yet, neither have threatened the podium places. To me, their tactics have seemed questionable and they seem far to preoccupied with what the other is doing instead of concentrating on victory. In my view, if a team has two riders capable of victory, one of whom finds himself in the leading breakaway, the team can do one of two things:

  1. The rider in front contributes to the breakaway effort with the hope of reaching the finish before the peloton, while the rider behind (along with the rest of the team) doesn’t do any chasing and can even attempt to disrupt any efforts by other teams at getting a chase organised.


  2. The rider in front decides to sit on and not contribute to the breakaway in the knowledge that he has a team mate behind more capable of winning. However, this decision by the rider in the leading group should only be acceptable if his team mates in the peloton are contributing to the chase behind in an effort to get their other rider back to the front of the race.

The Schlecks however, seem to be wanting the best of both worlds. For instance, Frank attacks and due to his reputation, the attack gets marked and a break forms. But then Frank in front sits on because he won’t work against Andy behind, while Andy behind sits on because he won’t work against Frank in front. This tactic is bizarre and counter-productive and will get them nowhere. In my opinion, Andy has looked the stronger of the two this week, and all effort should be channeled into ensuring he can be put in the best position to retain his title.

The Irish have a rich history in this race. Seán Kelly is a double winner having won in 1984 and 1989. He also finished in the top 10 a further three times, and appeared in the top 20 on a further four occasions. Stephen Roche finished in the top 10 on five occasions including 3rd in 1985 and 2nd in 1987, on both occasions losing out to the Italian Moreno Argentin. The third of the old Irish trio Martin Earley managed two top 10 finishes in 1988 and 1989. The new Irish trio of Roche Jnr., Martin and Deignan will all be on the start line this Sunday. Dan Martin will be the most likely of the three to figure during the business end of the race. He finished in a solid 18th place at Fléche Wallonne and also has an 8th place to his name in cycling’s other hilly monument classic, the Tour of Lombardy. Roche could also feature but he has admitted that he is better suited to Fléche Wallonne where he took 30th place. Deignan did not finish on Wednesday, nor did he finish Amstel Gold where he was hampered by mechanical problems. The Donegal man will be hoping for a better showing this Sunday where he’ll most likely be riding at the service of his team mate and former Tour de France winner Carlos Sastre. Enjoy the race on Sunday folks as it’s the last Spring classic of the year!

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