Cadel Evans appears near his Grand Tour best again after dealing with two tough years. The 2011 Tour de France winner sits second overall, best of the favourites, in the Giro d'Italia ahead of this weekend's mountain stages.
"It's a good start for me," team BMC's Aussie said, "but it's early days."
Evans sits 21 seconds behind leader Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge), who should lose the pink jersey tomorrow when the race finishes at 1,235 metres. Behind Evans, the closest overall contender is Rigoberto Urán (Omega Pharma) at 57 seconds.
"Even if we were on equal times, it'd be hard to beat Evans," Michele Scarponi said. "Now, it's going to be hard to even claw back part of that advantage."
The advantage came thanks to the team time trial in Belfast and two tricky days in Italy. In Viggiano on Thursday, Evans fought back, overtook Joaquím Rodríguez's red Katusha train and placed second. With it, he took six bonus seconds.
Yesterday, his team rode at the front and continued to do so when a crash occurred at the base of the finishing climb to Montecassino. Evans gained 49 seconds, plus four in bonus by placing third, on his nearest rivals.
Others like Scarponi, lost much more time due to the crash. Nicolas Roche (Tinkoff-Saxo) finished 15 minutes back.
With his ride in this Giro d'Italia and his win in the Giro del Trentino, he appears to be returning to his 2011 level. That year, he became the first Aussie to win the Tour de France.
"There's a couple of blots – in 2004, 2012 and 2013 – but over 18 years, it's not too bad of a career," Evans said.
"In 2012, a virus really knocked me out. I had to take such a break to recover from that. I was more than two months off the bike, and that ruined my 2013 season. That's why I had an extra Grand Tour last year to rebuild my base again, and now it's starting to come together finally."
Evans won two stages en route to the Tour overall. He also won the Tirreno-Adriatico and Tour of Romandy stage races in 2011. In 2012, he won the Critérium International stage race. At the Tour, however, he began to suffer.
"I was really going in 2011. I was trying to maintain that level or lift it, but that virus knocked me right back," Evans added.
"I didn't know why I was performing so badly, that was the frustrating thing. I was more than worried. There were a couple of times there I didn't know what was going on. There's always a reason, but when you don't know that reason, it's difficult to work things out. Now it seems to be coming together again."
The 37-year-old decided with BMC this winter that he would race the Giro d'Italia and leave Tejay van Garderen to the Tour de France. The early decision appears to have helped him in 2014.
He won a stage and placed second to Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) at the Tour Down Under, he placed seventh in the Tour of the Basque Country and ahead of the Giro, he won the Giro del Trentino.
"It's a good start, but we have three weeks to face in the Giro with top riders who built their season around this race," Evans said.
"It's important for me to grab seconds when I can, especially with the third week and the uphill time trial. It's the only stage race where it's better get the lead beforehand."
Aggressive performance on final climb during Wednesday's stage sees Cadel Evans rise to third overall
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Gregor Brown is an experienced cycling journalist, based in Florence, Italy. He has covered races all over the world for over a decade - following the Giro, Tour de France, and every major race since 2006. His love of cycling began with freestyle and BMX, before the 1998 Tour de France led him to a deep appreciation of the road racing season.
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