Simon Gerrans won their epic race, but Cadel Evans is still the man.
The only Australian to win the Tour de France attracted the biggest cheers on Sunday on the final day of the Australian road cycling championships at Buninyong, near Ballarat.
Evans overcame an overwhelming weight of numbers against him in the elite men’s road race and a mechanical problem inside the last 30km to finish second.
It was the perfect victory podium, with fellow Tour de France star Richie Porte taking third place.
Such a strong ride at the start of the season is also an encouraging sign for Evans, who will miss the Tour this year and concentrate on the May Giro d’Italia (Tour of Italy).
Other then finishing third in last year’s Giro, Evans has often struggled with illness and form since his historic 2011 Tour win.
He will head into the January 19-26 Tour Down Under, the first WorldTour race of the season, knowing his form is right where it should be.
“What I really came here for was to get a good stepping stone into Tour Down Under and the WorldTour season,” he said.
“So to be there in the end with a chance for the win was really more than I had expected.”
This was the first time Evans has raced at the road nationals since 2005 and the fans’ reaction to his appearance again underlined his lofty status in Australian sport.
After keeping a low profile through his pre-season training, Evans sparked a Twitter stir on Saturday with media comments about the status of national titles.
“My objective as a professional is to get World Tour points other than the jersey, it (the nationals road race) doesn’t count for that much,” he said.
But as soon as he arrived on Sunday morning, it was clear Evans was the crowd favourite and he duly delivered with a superb ride.
“The public … the weather, the town, I say thank you,” he said.
“It was a fantastic experience.”
Evans is a competitive beast and he was not satisfied with second.
But in the same breath, he acknowledged it was an ideal start to his season.
“It’s a jersey or nothing for me, as far as I am concerned,” he said.
“When I say ‘nothing’, it’s gone better than I expected.
“But here on my own every move I made there was one or two GreenEDGE or Drapac behind me, closing the gap behind me every move I went.
“I just couldn’t accelerate any more (at the finish), I exhausted myself too much early on.”
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