The boy from Katherine
Despite high hopes that he had more than a very good chance, Cadel Evans (centre in the photo above) did not win the Tour de France, and had to settle for second place for a second year in a row. I'm sure I wasn't the only one who wanted the whole thing to go away after that.
However, Cadel's recent announcement that he will not make the Beijing Olympics has rekindled the kind of media flurry only sports and entertainment celebrities (notice I didn't use 'actors' or 'sports-people' – deliberately) can elicit. A lot of the media attention has been on whether Cadel 'has what it takes' to win the Tour or win at Beijing (notice how 'choker' got trotted out a bit?).
Beaten by the Spaniard Carlos Sastre, Cadel seemed to struggle to keep his position after winning the yellow jersey a couple of times. So much was riding on him beating Sastre in the time trial last Saturday, Cadel's strong point, but he could not pull it off and it was Sastre who rode down the Champs-Élysées in triumph.
David Tiley of Barista has written a profoundly insightful post on the Tour de France and Cadel Evans's failure to win. David's film maker's eye for camera work and the French TV coverage of the Tour opened up some new insights into the Tour for me, and into television sports coverage generally.
One of my favourite phrases from David's post is where he describes the helicopter filming the cyclists progress up the Alps and through the French countryside as "like an airship rowed through the sky by elves”. I returned to the phrase over and over, almost wishing Miyazaki would take it and run with it.
But the clincher is David's analysis of Cadel’s weakness in riding the Tour, which made me flinch.
Cadel was never a competitor, never stamped his power and ego over the Tour. He was a capsule of averages, a moving wave of statistics who consistently did okay at the front of the peleton, always sustained by the fact that he is better at the time trial than the others whose performance is more uneven. While we hoped for the best, he was vulnerable to a mountain climber who learnt the mental discipline of riding like a steam train on the flat, off in some mathematical space which is really a meditation on rhythm.
Watching Carlos Sastre hurtle up the 13.8 km of the Alpe d’Huez, the toughest climb on the Tour de France, alone and peerless, as his CSC teammates dicked around with the peleton and Cadel just bobbed around in the flotsam, it was pretty obvious that the boy from Katherine is a one trick pony.
I so wanted to believe Cadel could win that it seemed disloyal to digest what David said. But in the end I had to agree – especially as I too noticed that while I watched Cadel (and then only a little) on TV, I couldn’t shake the nagging ‘back of the mind’ thought that he didn’t look like he could really do it, that he looked like he struggled up the mountains in a miasma of pain, rather than seem to almost float up as the leaders, and Tour winner Carlos Sastre obviously, did.
For all the fact that I find David's analysis so convincing, I find it odd how writers, and sports journalists especially, like to speculate on whether or not a sportsperson has 'what it takes' to win an event or perform at their best (and whether their best is good enough), as if the journalist has some great insight into the sportsperson's state of mind. But how different is David's insights into Cadel Evan's Tour campaign from the kind of media speculation that I mentioned at the start of this post?
I think sports psychology has a lot to answer for as thousands of armchair sports commentators and enthusiasts – and here I dob myself in for the dubious honour – pontificate on the worthiness and fitness of people to perform physical feats that we would be hard pressed to even start, let alone finish. And we are in for a feast of this type of commentary with the Olympics opening in less than a week: the hybrid of armchair psychology and couch potato sports-mania. Is this a case of 'those who can, do; those who can't, pontificate'?
Perhaps it has everything to do with heroes, and that thing we like to call the Achilles heel. We want our heroes to be great and to achieve things that we can only dream of. We want our heroes to astound us and lift us up from our mundane lives of plodding domesticity and mind-crushing labour. And when they don't live up to the bargain we make with them – and it is a bargain: believe in me, because I believe in myself – we want answers. Explanations. Insights. And redemption – a reason to believe in them again, or in the next hero to come along.
Cadel Evans will always be to me the guy from Katherine who raced 'le Tour', crashed – more badly than they admitted, I reckon – but picked himself up to keep riding and finish that stage, and then woke up the next morning to ride again and win the yellow jersey. And won it again the next day. And I could never amount to a puff of breeze in his wake in the cycling stakes.
Perhaps Cadel will have another chance to show us that he is actually a strong bicycle racer with the heart of a lion, as speculation mounts that after withdrawing from the Games, he has another chance after all.
[Images courtesy of The Age's free Tour de France photos]