It was in the unlikely setting of Tasmania's Mount Wellington that Phil Liggett, one of the world's top cycling commentators, witnessed a rider with the heart required to win the toughest endurance event on the planet.
Since that day in 1998, Liggett has believed Australia's Cadel Evans would become a Tour de France champion.
"I was in a team car following Neil Stephens, a stage winner in France, on the climb to the top of Mount Wellington when Evans not only came up alongside him, but simply rode off Stephens's back wheel and away into the distance," Liggett told The Australian last night.
"The manner in which he did it - against a then seasoned Euro-pean based professional - simply blew me away. And to think he was still concentrating on a career as a mountain biker."
Evans has captured Australia's heart, with broadcaster SBS announcing record viewing figures - 100 per cent increases year-on-year since 2009.
"We did share a joke about his impact on the economy of our nation. I suggested he wasn't doing much good for national productivity, because everyone was coming to work bleary-eyed.
"He suggested it'd all be all right in the end, because people would feel so full of morale they'd be cantering into work and then working harder."
Evident to anyone who has stayed up into the early hours over the past three weeks as the Tour wound its way around France is Evans's freakish ability to deal with pain. It was the factor that put him on the brink of victory as the peloton headed for the Champs-Elysees overnight, according to the man who convinced him to quit mountain bikes for the road.
"While you still need luck at the Tour, the ability to absorb pain and keep racing is the true test of a road warrior in a three-week grand tour is why Cadel finally won," said Dave Sanders, the head cycling coach at the Victorian Institute of Sport.
Sanders mentored Evans for more than a decade, first as a mountain biker, before convincing him to switch to the road after competing at the Sydney Olympics. "The thing about Cadel when it comes to racing is his absolute commitment and an unwavering self-belief he can win.
"A lot of it has to do with his freakish physiology to absorb punishment from hour after lonely hour on the bike.
"Most of the skill set we've seen from him over the past month came from his time as a mountain biker, which he later refined in his time under the coaching of the late Aldo Sassi."
Sassi, who died of cancer last December, was Evans's coaching mentor from the first day he arrived in Italy, including watching him win the 2009 world road title in Switzerland.
Evans said: "Sassi said I could win a grand tour and he hoped it would be the Tour de France. He believed in me since he started coaching me in October 2001."
Remembering the two time trials where he had fallen short, Evans said: "In 2007 Contador had a really good day and I had an average day. But in 2008, I was injured and exhausted . . . It was so stressful, physically and emotionally. That was the hardest Tour I've done, and in a time trial every weakness is exposed.
"Today I knew what I had to do. I just went through the process and had my plan, which was to go out and do the best I could, start well and settle down. I came up a few seconds short for the stage win, but it was enough. Now I just hope tomorrow the sun is out."
A sensitive and intense soul, Evans has achieved possibly the greatest individual sporting win in Australia's history.
After finishing a gallant fifth on the 109.5km stage to the legendary climb that is the Alpe d'Huez, Evans was just 57 seconds behind Andy Schleck, and four seconds behind brother Frank Schleck of Leopard Trek, leading into Saturday night's individual time trial. When pressed what his tactics were going to be in Grenoble, Evans said:
"Start as fast as possible, finish as fast as possible and hope it's fast enough."
Simple, but in the end very effective, as both Schlecks fell behind the clock to the determined Evans, who finally shed the bad luck stories to show not just Australia but the world what he's really capable of.
Author | Source | Peter Kogoy | The Australian | July 25th.