The penultimate day of the 2009 Tour, finishing atop the infamous Mont Ventoux, provided all the fireworks it required. Attacks came from all sides in the form of Andy and Frank Schleck (Saxobank) in an effort to keep Andy in second place and to distance the Astana contingent to get Frank into third.
Their other goal was to see if Contador could crack. On a climb like the Ventoux, if a rider has a bad day, he could lose minutes very quickly. The 21-kilometer ascent is very steep for the first half of the climb, under the protection of the forest.
However, the top of the climb is completely exposed, cold, and windy. Nothing grows up on the peak, and riders get barraged by heavy winds.
Early in the stage, a large group of 16 riders managed to escape from the pack. On today's crucial stage, where the overall classification contenders were trying to squeeze minutes out of each other, a breakaway win did not look likely.
The breakaway achieved a maximum advantage of nearly 10 minutes as the peloton blazed through the French countryside, taking on the early climbs of the Col d'Ey and the Col des Abeilles.
The Astana team of race leader Alberto Contador set a firm pace for much of the day as their duty of the team to contain the yellow jersey.
As the peloton got closer to Mont Ventoux, however, Saxobank started to take over. Everyone could sense that they were planning their coup to launch both Schlecks onto the podium.
The race up Ventoux started very early on the lower slopes instead of waiting for the steeper sections. Saxobank rode on the offensive to put Astana as well as close rival Bradley Wiggins (Garmin) under pressure before the real climbing began.
With 11 kilometers to go of the 21-kilometer final ascent, Andy Schleck launched his move. Contador immediately followed, as did Armstrong, Frank Schleck, Wiggins, Andreas Kloden (Astana), and Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas). The Schlecks' plan was being put into effect.
Andy was making the attacks with Frank on his tail in the hopes of at least distancing Armstrong, Kloden, and Wiggins to get Frank back into third overall.
Not content with just one attack, Andy went again and Contador followed. Clearly, nothing was going to ruffle the feathers of the yellow jersey today. The attacks came in one after the other.
The accelerations managed to dislodge Kloden from the group. Frank had moved up one place into fifth. Armstrong, though, could not be shaken from the Schlecks. He was smartly marking every acceleration right behind his teammate Contador.
The leaders were gobbling up the remnants of the breakaway. One by one, breakaway riders fell off the back. With five kilometers left on the climb, where the riders were exposed to high winds, only two riders, Juan Manuel Garate (Rabobank) and Tony Martin (Columbia-HTC), still were riding ahead of the charging yellow jersey group.
Thanks to the in-fighting of the overall contenders, mountains leader Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas) broke free of the yellow jersey group in the hopes of catching Garate and Martin for the stage win to do his polka dot jersey justice.
With a final burst coming 1.5 kilometers from the top, Andy surged up the mountain and dropped Wiggins. Brother Frank, Contador, and Armstrong were still with him. Frank could maybe move up into fourth place overall with this attack.
The Schlecks once again caught Pellizotti near the top but Garate and Martin were still ahead by a mere 40 seconds over the charging yellow jersey group after being away in the breakaway for the entire 167-kilometer stage.
For the stage win, the more experienced climber Garate out-sprinted Martin to bring Rabobank a win after their otherwise disastrous Tour campaign, as Tour of Italy winner Denis Menchov had incessant bad luck during this race.
Andy and Contador came in third and fourth, 38 seconds behind Garate and Martin. They gapped Armstrong by three seconds and Frank by five seconds in their surge for the line.
Wiggins, despite being dropped 1.5 kilometers from the line, managed to ride within himself, not panic, and finish only 20 seconds behind Frank to keep his fourth overall position by only three seconds. Armstrong retained his third overall position in the standings.
The final general classification is now complete. Contador has won his second Tour de France as well as his fourth consecutive Grand Tour. Andy Schleck is in second at 4:11, Armstrong third at 5:24, Wiggins fourth at 6:01, Frank Schleck fifth at 6:04, and Kloden sixth at 6:42.
Tomorrow's final stage into Paris is entirely processional, after the GC lock up today. Riders ride the first 120 kilometers of the race at a leisurely pace, less than 30 kph. Those who have survived the 3500-kilometer event celebrate their achievements and survival, share stories, and drink a bit of champagne.
Then when the riders arrive in Paris, they face seven laps of a circuit around the Champs-Elysses, a circuit that takes in Paris landmarks such as the Place de la Concorde and the Arc de Triomphe.
When they enter the circuit, the race heats up dramatically as the peloton surges to over 50 kph and the sprinters try to set it up for one final showdown, as long as a flying breakaway rider does not steal the show.
Yellow jersey Contador, white jersey Andy Schleck, and polka dot jersey Pellizotti are safe in their respective garments, but green jersey Thor Hushovd (Cervelo) will need to be attentive as there are two intermediate sprints as well as 35 points available to the winner on the finish line that Mark Cavendish (Columbia) might want to steal.
He has a 25-point lead over the Manxman and will need to stay right next to Cavendish the whole time to protect his lead. Hushovd will need to finish in the top 10 on the stage, assuming Cavendish wins, to be safe in green.