As heads turn toward to an onrushing Premiership season, and the extent to which Manchester City will flash their cash around, it is time to take a look back at the sporting highlight of our summer. As usual there was drama, injuries and our English representatives underperformed. As always the host nation excelled themselves and , inveitably, the Spanish won – although not as easily as we might have expected. I am of course talking about the Tour de France.
Alberto Contador rolled onto the cobbles of the Champs-Élysées in the safety of the peleton to claim his third TDF and his fifth grand Tour. That he was exactly 39 seconds ahead of nearest rival Andy Schleck, the exact amount of time he put between them after Schelk’s chain came off on the Port de Balles, will lead to the inevitable “what if” posturing. The fact is that Contador was supreme. He retained parity when many expected him to lose time over the cobbles, stayed strong and astute in the mountains and then rode a formidable time trial into the head winds of Bordeaux to prove yet again that he is the top all-round rider. Andy Schleck though is clearly gaining ground. Next year could be the most exciting battle royale in Tour history, with Schleck aided by his brother Frank, who broke his collarbone and had to withdraw in the opening week, hopefully free of mechanical problems and still more experienced in his weakest discipline, the time trial. Given the form of the rest of the GC hopefuls it seems unlikely that, unless someone makes a huge improvement, their dominance will be challenged. Expect to see more gargantuan contests on the scale of the one played out on the slopes of the Tourmalet and as always expect it to be a tight, compulsive battle. Many will favour Schleck now, given the improvements that he has made, but Contador has proved his resiliance time and again. Roll on 2011.
The Green Jersey
So no Maillot Verde again for Mark Cavendish but there is still no doubt as to who the premier road race sprinter is in world cycling. The “Manx Missile” proved, after some early falterings, that he simply cannot be beaten with or without his consigliere Mark Renshaw. Allesandro Pettachi may have risen from the dead to claim the Jersey for Italy for the first time since 1968, but he will know that had Cav not crashed in an early stage and then sat up to finish outside the points when it was clear he wasn’t going to win in a later stage then he would be taking the prize back to Britain. An astounding five stage wins takes Cavendish’s total to 15 for his career and his run shows no signs of abating. The sprinter is relatively young and we can expect further displays of total domination such as that which won him the stage into Bordeaux for a few more years yet. Elswhere Thor Hushovd’s powers seem to be waning but the God of Thunder stil fought valiantly all the way to Paris to prove that he is one of the sport’s great competitors. A new vanguard of young riders is fast replacing the sterling skills of Hushovd and riders like Robbie McEwan with Team Sky’s Edvald Boasson Hagen at their forefront. A few top three finishes on a debut team is nothing to sniff at and with experience expect to see the young Norweigan rider crossing the line first more than a few times in future.
The King of the Mountains
Anthony Charteau will be elated to take home a jersey from the Tour de France after years as a somewhat jobbing rider. Without a big hitter intent on taking the polka dots home in the mould of Richard Virenque, the mountains prize is up for grabs for those who get themselves into a break in an early mountain stage and then have to the legs to stay consistent in the following weeks. Regardless it is a brilliant achievement for the Bbox Telecom man and his victory adds to a special year for French cycling. The French claimed six stage victories in the Tour, an impressive haul that included a masterful solo effort by Christoph Riblon in the mountains and a canny break by the ever dependable, current national Champion Thomas Voeckler.
British and Irish Riders
Cav will obviously take the plaudits as the best British rider but honourable mentions go to Geraint Thomas on his debut Tour, as he held the white jersey for the best young rider during the opening week. Irish rider Nicholas Roche, son of former Tour winner Stephen, will also be pleased with his three weeks work as he secured a top 15 finish despite an incident in the Pyrenees where a domestique on his AG2R La Mondiale team, John Gadret, refused to give his team leader his wheel after his puncture. It provoked this atonishing response in the Irish Independant. Roche managed to keep his cool for the remainder of the Tour to record a more than respectable finish. Bradley Wiggins will be less pleased with his result as he finished 24th and rarely looked like troubling the upper echelons of the GC. After a shoddy start in the prologue things went rapidly downhill for the man who looked so impressive last year and had called his preparation “near perfect”. He cracked in a big way in the mountains and even called his own performance “shit”. It is such a huge disspointment for expectant British fans but it will hopefully inspire a response next year. It is clear there is room to at least be the dominant understudy to the brilliance of Schelck and Contador. Let’s hope Wiggins can fill it.
Cavendish’s tears on the podium in Montargis have to be right up there in terms of raw emotion but I think for spectacle the Battle on the Tourmalet sneaks it. The beauty of it was that everyone knew it was going to happen so when Andy Schleck sprinted away with 10km to go and could only be matched by Contador we had to the one-on-one slugfest that we had all been waiting for. It may not have radically altered the result or given us the game changing fireworks we had hoped for, but the sight of the two best cyclists on the Tour sprinting up the mighty Tourmalet through the fog, with Schleck turning every so often to stare angrily into Contador’s impassive eyes was a stage to remember for years.
Lance Armstrong’s swansong ending in ingnimony on the road to Morzine. The great Tour rider will have been heartbroken to have his farewell Tour end in such a fashion as he crashed three times, not once of his own accord, to lose eleven minutes and have his Tour effectively ended. He may well have been able to challenge for a podium position given the calibre of riders like Sammy Sanchez and Denny Menchov but it was clear that the fight went out of a man so used to winning after such a monumental setback. Still he ended the Tour as he always has – on the podium in Paris as his Radioshack team won the team classification. A fitting end for a formidable athlete. Let us hope that ongoing investigations triggered by doping accusations against him don’t end in a situation that will damage the sport of cycling beyond recognition.
So that was the Tour. Perhaps the most dramatic in recent memory; it offered us chain-gate, tears, fights, crashes, cobbles and a worthy winner. Let’s hope that next year is just as good.