PARIS — It was a Tour de France that many are hailing as a classic. There were crashes, dropouts, surprises and, above all, a new champion wearing the yellow jersey on the podium in Paris.
With Cadel Evans becoming the first Australian to win cycling’s most prestigious race, the Tour de France had a completely new look this year.
Lance Armstrong’s seven-year stranglehold over the Tour was a remarkable demonstration of strength and focus but not that engrossing in terms of the competition.
After the American’s departure, Alberto Contador stepped up and won three titles in four years — with his third still in limbo after a positive drug test last year.
This year, though, with defending champion Contador far from his best, the race was wide open. Despite the early departure of some pre-race favourites, halfway through the final week there were still seven serious contenders for the title. And that’s not even to mention upstart Frenchman Thomas Voeckler, who led through the Pyrenees and most of the Alps, fighting off every attempt to relieve him of the precious yellow jersey.
The rivalry between Luxembourg brothers Frank and Andy Schleck was finally played out, after it was cut short last year by a crash that forced Frank to drop out.
The brothers revealed nothing but devotion to each other. Frank seemed genuinely delighted at his younger sibling’s success, and they embraced at the finish line seconds after Andy finished his time-trial on Saturday. Their second and third-place finishes for Leopard-Trek are proof that a team doesn’t have to tear itself apart if it has more than one contender — though maybe it takes the strength of family ties to make it work.
Two Italians — Ivan Basso and Damiano Cunego — were in the hunt, though in the end their climbing skills weren’t enough to counter their poor time-trial performances; Contador was still dangerous, but he couldn’t make up the time he’d lost at the beginning of the race; his compatriot, Olympic champion Samuel Sanchez, walked off with the polka-dot jersey for the best climber and a sixth-place finish.
Canada’s Ryder Hesjedal had a difficult start to the Tour with a crash in Stage 7, but the Victoria native battled back to finish 18th overall after a seventh place showing in 2010.
The 30-year-old paced the peloton for long stretches during this year’s race as he secured position for other cyclists on the Garmin-Cervelo team, which finished first in the team standings.
Hesjedal showed his endurance and racing smarts during the 16th stage when he sprung teammate Thor Hushovd to victory in the 162.5-kilometre section. He placed third at Gap while helping Garmin to its fourth stage win to that point.
Amid it all, seemingly untouched by the chaos, was Evans.
“A few people always believed in me. I always believed in me. And we did it!” the 34-year-old said after his triumphant entry into Paris on Sunday.
Up every mountain, Evans was never more than one bicycle length behind his rivals. With a small lead that he’d picked up in the early stages of the race and a lot of strength in time-trialing, he knew that he didn’t need to attack in order to win.
Still, when Andy Schleck broke away from the field on the climb of the Galibier pass on Thursday, observers thought Evans’ BMC team had made a critical mistake. But Evans remained calm.
He went into the time-trial needing to make up almost a minute on Schleck; he made up almost two-and-a-half.
“The real highlight of it all was the last three or four kilometres of the time trial,” Evans said. “The hardest part had been done until that point and coming into that finish I knew we were on the right track so that was just incredible. For once the last four kilometres of a time trial wasn’t that hard.”
The race for the green jersey of best sprinter was far more clear-cut than organizers had intended. Trying to counter the almost-untouchable speed of Briton Mark Cavendish at the stage finish, they introduced another major sprint in the middle of each stage. But Cavendish won the green jersey anyway, despite trailing to the finish of every mountain stage.
“The Tour de France for me is so far ahead of everything else,” said Cavendish, the winner of five stages this year who at the age of 26 is already fifth on the all-time list of stage winners.
“I’ll keep coming back for as long as my legs can keep coming back, and I’ll keep trying to win for as long as my legs can keep trying to win.”
The first week of this year’s race was one of the most incident-filled in years. Crashes undermined Contador’s chances and forced out Bradley Wiggins, Jurgen Van Den Broeck and Alexandre Vinokourov — another nearly man of the Tour who immediately announced his retirement.
A rash move by a TV car sent rider Juan Antonio Flecha flying and catapulted Johnny Hoogerland into the headlines. The Dutchman was thrown into a barbed wire fence and needed dozens of stitches, but finished the stage — and the race — and held the polka-dot jersey for a time.
The French went crazy for Voeckler, who only expected to hold the yellow jersey for a day or two but showed extraordinary strength to stay with Evans and the Schleck brothers through most of the mountain stages and finish fourth overall.
Voeckler discovered the strength of French feeling for him and his teammate Pierre Rolland — the best young rider — when he went for a reconnaissance ride on Saturday and was cheered the whole way.
“I felt that France was entirely behind us,” Voeckler said. “If we’ve given the public a little pleasure in these difficult times, so much the better.”
The last French winner of the race was Bernard Hinault in 1985, but the country can finally have hopes for the future — if not with the 32-year-old Voeckler then with young riders such as Rolland and Jerome Coppel. In all, five French riders finished in the top 15.
Another country that was celebrating success was Norway. Hushovd had looked to be past his best, but he reinvented himself as a stayer on more technical courses where the younger riders fell away, and he took two stage wins.
His 24-year-old compatriot Edvald Boasson Hagen, in his first Tour, took two more stages, showed himself to be a sprinter, a climber and even a time-trialer of great talent, and set himself up as a future race contender. The pair brought light to Norway at a time when the country was dealing with a great tragedy at home.
They stood together as the riders marked a minute of silence for the victims of the twin attacks in Norway before the final stage.
Contador began the race being booed by fans after his positive drug test following last year’s Tour win. The Court of Arbitration for Sport will hear an appeal by cycling authorities next month after the Spaniard was cleared by the Spanish federation.
Contador summed up the race on Twitter as “a different Tour, with troubles but that I finish with a very good taste.”
He added: “I’m thinking on 2012!”