Lessons from the 97th Tour de France
The Spaniard reigned for a third time. He pedaled to Paris with the supreme confidence of Napoleon Bonaparte, and when he crossed the finish line, he extended his arms like scepters.
The youngster from Luxembourg blanketed himself in white and vowed to take the throne next year. All he could do was lament another lost opportunity to wear cycling's ultimate crown.
Such is life for Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck, who rode as near equals in the 97th Tour de France until key moments in the first two weeks proved too much for Saxo Bank's star to overcome. The racing rivals glided from Longjomeau to the Champs-Elysées in step, often with their arms fastened and smiles in a rare high gear.
For three weeks, Schleck and Contador engaged in one of the closest, fiercest battles for the yellow jersey in the event's history. Four other Tour editions featured lesser victory margins. They toasted one another for a game well played and allowed the peloton to carry them to the frantic finish.
Contador even lauched a mock attack on his chief competitor in a humorous nod to the riders' gritty, ferocious battles in the Pyrenees, the Alps, and in Saturday's individual time trial.
Anthony Charteau could also relax, given that he locked up the polkadot jersey honoring the King of the Mountains on Thursday afternoon.
Team Radio Shack wore black jerseys to honor the world's 28 million known cancer victims, a laudable publicity stunt for Lance Armstrong's LiveStrong foundation. The problem: UCI officials did not approve the jersey colors or the PR move. Agitated race referees told Radio Shack members they would face disqualification if they refused to wear their sanctioned red and black jerseys.
The refs even stopped the action for a moment to allow the riders to comply. Armstrong won two ways Sunday. His unapproved nod to cancer victims and the ensuing hijinks netted significant TV coverage and further put the spotlight on his noble cause. The publicity also did not cost Radio Shack a podium picture.
Even after a shaky previous day at the time trial, Armstrong's squad still finished with the best overall time of 276 hours, two minutes, and three seconds.
Sunday's real action, though, began in the final few kilometers, with the Champs-Elysées and finish line in sight. The thrills came courtesy of master sprinters Mark Cavendish, Thor Hushovd, and Alessandro Petacchi.
Cavendish, the man no rider can expect to catch when he accelerates, notched his third stage win of the Tour. Petacchi took home the bigger sprinters' prize, the green points jersey.
With the Eiffel Tower in the rear-view mirror, here are a few lessons learned from the three-week sojourn that commenced in Rotterdam and ended, per tradition, in Paris.
Contador Can Savor Hard-Earned Victory
The Spaniard became the ninth rider in history to win at least three yellow jerseys. He did so, amazingly, without winning a single stage.
Those who watched the race know that he did not coast during any portion of it. Wheel-to-wheel battles with Schleck supplanted stage triumphs. The three-time white jersey holder was usually breathing down Contador's neck and within a two second sprint of tapping his broad shoulders.
A mere eight seconds separated the two competitors entering Saturday's time trial in Bourdeaux. Contador proved himself the better rider by 39 seconds and can again lay claim as the world's best cyclist.
The yellow jersey became much tougher for the 27-year-old Contador to clinch than anyone anticipated. That said, can Schleck or anyone else take it off his back next year?
Contador's Tour reign may continue longer than his rivals can stomach.
Schleck Should Blame Poor Prologue, Not Bike Chain
Contador's chief challenger should rue his rotten opening day in Rotterdam, where he finished the prologue in 122nd place, more than a minute behind teammate Fabian Cancellara.
The prologue matters in a race this close. Ceding 42 seconds to Contador, even if he knew he could get them back and the lead within the week, was a risky, foolish move. A better start would have afforded him a better cushion.
...But the Bike Chain Didn't Help
Schleck's 31-second lead evaporated when his bike chain broke during a powerful attack on the first climb of Stage 15. The dislodged chain forced Schleck to stop for an emergency repair. Contador surged ahead, and Schleck spent the remainder of the race trying to get those precious seconds back.
Maybe his early attack on the mountainous stage was fool-hearted. Maybe he could have prevented his malfunction misfortune. It was still misfortune. No one should forget that.
Schleck and Contador Took Advantage of Each Other
Does Contador's attack— which he still says came without knowledge of Schleck's mechanical failure— qualify as a defining breach of cycling etiquette?
I say no, since the purpose of the race, or any sporting event for that matter, is to win. It remains possible that Contador did indeed learn of the accident when it no longer made sense to slow down.
What about Schleck's attack during the third stage? Why does no one mention that in this sportsmanship discussion? He gained more than a minute back with a superb ride over those dreaded cobblestones. Contador was held back early in the stage by a crash.
Cobbles Make for Great TV, but Pose Unnecessary Risk
I enjoyed watching the riders grit their teeth in anticipation of those jagged, narrow roadways as much as any spectator. I also think the organizers should avoid cobblestone routes (save for the Champs-Elysées) in next year's Tour.
Why throw extra hazards at the world's best cyclists in an event already filled with them? The Tour would have been as exciting without that race wrinkle. The cobbles caused several crashes and cost Schleck his elder brother and teammate for the remaining 17 stages.
Frank's presence would have given Andy a better shot against Alberto.
Cavendish Sprints by Example
No rider validated the Tour as a strategic race against time better than Britain's Cavendish. The fastest guy in competitive sprints could not secure a green jersey for his efforts.
Stage victories serve as nice mementos for cyclists with no chance at a podium spot. They do not guarantee or often yield point totals or overall times adequate for a jersey finish. Cavendish ended in 154th place.
He did not, however, miss teammate Mark Renshaw, expusled for head-butting, Sunday afternoon as much as analysts thought he might.
Lady Luck Also Left Samuel Sanchez
The Schleck brothers and Lance Armstrong suffered some much-discussed bad luck, but an untimely crash may have caused Euskaltel-Euskadi's Samuel Sanchez to vacate his podium spot. That was big, too.
He could not fend off Rabobank's Denis Menchov in Saturday's time trial and faced a gloomy ride to Paris.
Carlos Barredo Fights to the End
Was anyone more combative than the Spanish rider for Quick Step? From his entertaining tiff with Rui Costa to his courageous attack with 44 kilometers to go on Stage 16, he never stopped throwing punches.
He did not affect the overall standings much, but he was hard to miss.
Speaking of Fast...
Switzerland's Fabian Cancellara merits a nod for his tremendous ride from Bourdeaux to Pauillac. He became Andy Schleck's ace teammate in Frank Schleck's absence and continued his strong run as a marvelous time trialist.
Armstrong One Among Many Letdowns
A series of crashes in the first day in the Alps wrecked Armstrong's Tour for good. He might curse his bad luck on that eighth stage for the rest of his life.
The American was not the only rider who failed to meet expectations.
Former world champion Cadel Evans held the yellolw jersey for all of one day and then suffered through a disheartening Tour marred by injury and our inflated expectations.
Cavendish failed to win the green jersey.
Levi Leipheimer became America's great podium hope when Armstrong's chances dissolved. He lost a lethal chunk of time Thursday afternoon and could not make any substantial moves in the Pyrenees. He dropped quickly from sixth to his final spot: 13th.
What happened to Ivan Basso? The Italian rider once finished second to Armstrong. This year, he was quieter than a deaf mouse.
Bradley Wiggins crumbled under the weight of his own lofty standards. He even told reporters his fourth-place finish last year was a "fluke." Ouch. The Brit finished 24th.
More Col de Tourmalet, Please...
Elimination of cobblestones from future opening week stages might prove a prudent move when it comes to rider safety. That does not mean I want this to become a kiddie bike race. The murderous climb at the Tourmalet's summit presented the best, most captivating moment of the Tour.
No will soon forget Schleck and Contador speeding to the finish, with each trying to get the other to break. Schleck could not shake the Spaniard, but he gave it his best shot.
A few more climbs and perhaps one or two more opportunities for sprinting specialists would improve the race.
Completing the Race Does Count for Something
If this sounds too much like an "everybody wins," Kumbayah moment, forgive me. Team Lampre-Farnese's Adriano Malori, who finished last, was not mentioned during any of the Versus telecasts.
As Phil Liggett said Sunday, though, even the supposed lesser known-names can claim a victory. Just finishing the brutal, three-week race is a remarkable accomplishment. No one can take that away from the Italian, or Germany's Andreas Klier, or Mexico's Manuel Quinziato.
They completed the world's toughest, most prestigious bike race, and well, I did the same with this column. We all win.
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