Tomorrow, Friday the 12th of August, the city of Melbourne will stop to honour the achievement of Cadel Evans.
On Sunday the 24th of July, Cadel Evans stood at the top of the Podium on the Champs Elysee wearing the Maillot Jaune of the Tour de France, the holy grail of cycling and one of the most coveted prizes in world sport. To put this in perspective, consider that Cadel is the first Australian to take the top honour and only the third non-European in the history of the race. He came excruciatingly close on two other occasions in 2007 and 2008 when he finished second by a mere 23 and 57 seconds respectively. Knowing the family well has added a level of special drama to the race. For the last five years now we’ve watched the penultimate stage with Cadel’s grandmother, Gwen, sharing the excitement and trying to calm each other’s nerves. On the all-important individual time trial (ITT), as Cadel methodically dismantled Andy Schleck‘s time advantage and took the tour-winning lead there was a definite sense of the surreal not to mention relief. This really was the kind of moment we often only dream of. But it was really happening. A dream was coming true with every turn of the wheel. In Australia, coverage of the race ended at about 1:30am. Needless to say it took hours to get to sleep with the excitement. Seeing Cadel don the yellow jersey was deeply inspiring.
There’s no question that Cadel’s achievement is heroic, and I use this term in its traditional sense, not in the way that it’s often thrown around in contemporary popular culture. I’m talking from the perspective of someone who has spent the better part of 15 years studying the ancient hero in Greek and Roman literature. I’ve just recently finished a PhD on arguably the greatest hero of the ancient world, Achilles.
Let’s be straight about this. Cadel is very much an everyman, a mortal, but in very particular and extremely relevant ways he’s not like you and me at all. Like all the great heroes, Cadel was born with certain innate physiological attributes that put him into a special category necessary to win the great race. As an athlete at the elite Australian State and National sporting academies legend has it that Cadel is pretty much in a league of his own when it comes to his massive capacity to carry oxygen. I don’t have the exact numbers, but Tour champions have approximately twice the capacity of mere mortals, something in the realm of 6-7 litres. Their hearts are also bigger and beat much more slowly.
One of the aspects of the traditional hero that I’m most interested in is their psychological development. While they have god-given ability, they are tested and tried in ways that push them to the brink – they still have to earn their glory. They are forced to learn and grow. It is this psychological victory that really sets the hero apart I think. Cadel’s victory was more than twenty years in the making. He’s had his share of victories, crashes, and huge disappointments. After amazing success as a world champion mountain bike rider in the mid 1990s, his early road teams didn’t even give him starts in the Tour de France until 2005 when he came 8th in his maiden tour before taking 4th in 2006, and two second place finishes after that. These were regarded as great achievements also. He was the first Australian to place on the podium, but imagine what it would have been like to lose the race by 23 seconds! Watching his development from a distance over the last few years, it’s easy to see how Cadel has used this experience to grow, not merely as a rider, but as a man as well. This was most clear in the way he dealt with setbacks in the race, and in the grace with which he won, deferring most of the credit to his great team, BMC Racing.
Cadel has ridden his own road, learning and growing with each year, becoming both a great rider and an inspiring leader – an essential combination to win one of the grand tours (During the Tour I wrote a piece on this blog about why I believed he had the right combination to win). When it comes down to it, Cadel basically loves to ride and this was really clear as he rode the Tour. It would be impossible to put in the incredible effort day in day out, year after year, without his passion for the bike. In Cadel what we have also seen is the development of an extremely intelligent and mentally strong rider. He rode his own race, stuck to his plan, and did what needed to be done. When things weren’t going his way he was able to adapt and respond with focus. His preparation meant that he had the emotional and physical energy to respond when it was called for.
Above all, the hero wins honour, kleos, for himself, his family, comrades and community. Cadel’s victory is also one for Australian cycling and Australian sport generally. That’s saying something, but it doesn’t quite carry the significance of it. Cadel’s victory will stand as a beacon of hope and a call to all those who want to follow their dreams. Cadel’s victory shows us what is possible and helps to break down the powerful barriers of belief.
So, if you’re in Melbourne on Friday, come into the city and join in the celebrations.
Yell for Cadel!
The heroes of ancient Greece strove for what was referred to as kleos aphthiton, or immortal glory. This was especially pertinent for the warrior hero who expected to die at the height of his physical prowess in the heat of battle. What it really refers to is the hero accomplishing a feat so great that he will live on after death in the memory of his people through stories, art, and other forms of commemoration. Some heroes consciously desire this, but in truth, this immortality is conferred on the hero by his community who are uplifted by the hero’s example.