How could anyone predict that major delays on two stages of this year’s Tour de France would help make this one of the most exciting three weeks in Tour history?
What would the Tour have been like if Alberto Contador had not been delayed in a crash on stage one while his rivals opened major time gaps on the three-time Tour winner? Even with tired legs from winning the hardest ever Giro d’Italia three-week race in May, Contador is the best all-round stage racer in the world. That delay on the first day changed everything.
Then there is Frenchman Thomas Voeckler. Thanks to two major crashes on stage nine, Voeckler rode to infamy throughout the Tour’s final two weeks. Without those crashes, Voeckler would never have had the chance to distinguish himself in the yellow jersey, that helps the wearer “ride like 10 men” as long-time race announcer Phil Liggett claims.
These events set the stage for Contador and Voeckler to join Andy Schleck and Cadel Evans in a beautiful drama played out by four wonderful riders. Each had their moments of greatness.
Voeckler rode with his teeth clenched right into the hearts of every Frenchman and many more cycling fans. Gut wrenching determination are the adjectives that will always be associated with Voeckler. Day after day, experts, and even Voeckler himself, swore it would be his final day in the leader’s jersey. Yet, there Voeckler was grinning from ear to ear on the podium in the early evening with the “golden fleece” on his shoulders for another day.
Contador made things interesting in the final week with some daring attacks to close the gap on his rivals. They were exciting to watch but yielded no real results. Watching Contador ride is delight to my eyes. The outcome of his hearings on possible doping charges from the 2010 Tour might keep me from seeing that beauty next year.
As good as Andy Schleck can climb, he does not descend well and certainly cannot ride a good time trial at all. There is no real reason for me to not like Andy, or his brother Frank. Yet, I do not. Call it the “Whiner Factor.” The great American cyclist and Tour winner Greg Lemond had the same factor. Nothing is ever quite right. Nothing goes as it should. There is never quite enough respect. There is always something.
Andy’s gangly height is a factor. Flanking Tour winner Cadel Evans on Sunday’s final podium, even from the two lower steps, the Schleck brothers were taller than Evans. Andy can certainly climb, as the final two days in the Alps proved. Climbing alone will not win the Tour for Andy as long as Evans and Contador are riding and Andy does not improve his scary descending and woeful time trialing skills.
The winner, Cadel Evans, proved over these past three weeks that he can ride brilliantly. Schleck and Contador did all they could to break Evans. Often it looked as though they had. However, by the end of each stage, Evans fought with great determination to remain within striking distance ahead of the final time trial where Evans flew to victory. There is a lock-jawed steely appearance to Evans that has not projected well through a television screen until this final week. Then his tears and broad smiles finally made Evans a beloved champion.
There was a great supporting cast. Norwegians Thor Hushovd and Edvald Boasson Hagen won two stages each. American squad Garmin-Transitions won the team title. BMC’s George Hincapie completed his record tying 16th Tour and rode for his ninth victorious team – seven with Lance Armstrong, one with Contador and now Evans.
Just as Voeckler won world-wide respect, so did riders Juan Antonio Flecha and Johnny Hoogerland. Flecha was hit by a passing car, crashing hard to the pavement, and Hoogerland flew through the air crashing into a pole and landing in barbed wire fencing. Both somehow continued riding and both finished the Tour.
Finally, there is the hope that this was the cleanest Tour on the drug front in many, many years. Riders seemed human in this year’s Tour. They all had good and bad days instead of the super human unreal performances of the last ten years.
Mixing all these ingredients helped heighten the drama every day. By the end of the Tour, Evans shined brighter than all the others as the true and deserving champion.