The 2009 Tour de France sprinted its way to an end today, and as was expected from about a week and a half ago, it was Alberto Contador who ended on top of the cycling world, winning his second Tour title. The finish of the race, up and down the Champs Elysees is a great occasion, one you really should try to make if you’re a follower of the sport, and it was largely ceremonial for every rider but Mark Cavendish, who put the exclamation mark on an incredible Tour de France by winning his sixth stage. He may not have won the green jersey, but he’s without doubt the pre-eminent finisher in the sport.
Mont Ventoux – no leaderboard shake-up, but attack meets defence (and loses)
For the GC, as is normal, no major shake-ups today – that was the job of the Mont Ventoux yesterday. Apologies for no immediate post-race report on that one, in the end, the stage proved relatively insignificant in the big scheme of the race result, but it certainly didn’t fail to produce excitement. In hindsight, the podium was determined by Thursday’s time-trial, and not the Mont Ventoux, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying by the Schlecks, who really have lit up the final week of the Tour with their aggressive racing.
They attacked from about 15km to go on the giant finishing climb, first Frank and then Andy jumping off the front. When Frank went, Lance Armstrong was able to response immediately and shut the move down. Andy’s moves were followed only by Albert Contador, but Andy sat up and waited almost every time once Frank was not able to cover the move, and Contador was. The prevalent wind direction seemed to be from the front, and attacking into a headwind was always going to complicate the lives of the Schlecks, since the draft effect would be great enough to allow moves to be followed.
The battle on the slopes of the Mont Ventoux thus ultimately boiled down to two one-on-one battles: that between Contador and Andy Schleck, with Contador very comfortably able to control it (even if he had not, he had in excess of four minutes), and another battle between Frank Schleck and Lance Armstrong for third, with Brad Wiggins an outside shot at pulling a shock on the climb. In that battle, Armstrong was able to cover all the moves, and Wiggins ran out of steam near the summit. In the end, the aggressors simply did not have the form to shake off the defenders, and the result was that the podium was unchanged, the day’s only loser being Andreas Kloden, who conceded one position to Frank Schleck.
A tactical game and changes in impetus
It was extra-ordinary to see Schleck and Contador riding off the front of the peloton and then sitting up, Andy looking over his shoulder for brother Frank, before trying again, and again. The ease with which they rode the climb as a tactical race was striking, and at times it resembled a track race in cycling with a stop-start, fast-slow rhythm. That rhythm was made clear by the fact that the leaders on the road, Spain’s Juan Manuel Garate (who would go on to win the stage) and Tony Martin, were yo-yoing back and forth, first losing drastic time as a Schleck came, and then building a lead as the elite group lost all impetus once the Schleck attacks had been neutralised.
What it meant for the overall time, I’m not sure. I would have loved to analyse and get an idea of how fast this climb was done compard to those of years gone by (in keeping with what we’ve been doing all Tour long!). Unfortunately, it was impossible to see distance markers (apparently many were blown away, while others were obscured by crowds), so I don’t actually know the time taken by the elite group to summit. I can only surmise it was not that fast, because the Garate-Martin pair began the climb with about 5 minutes lead, and with 15.9km to go, had 3:24. That would normally not be enough, today it was. Also, the record ascent from that 15.9km mark (a village called St Esteve) is held by Marco Pantani at 46 minutes. I can’t see Garate doing it within 4 minutes of that, and so I can only assume the climb was relatively slow. Maybe later in the week, this can be looked at.
Contador reigns supreme
Not surprisingly, however, Contador was able to mark every move, and showed only a feint grimace near the summit for his troubles. He was imperious in the mountains, and won this Tour thanks to what amounted to only two big moves – one was the Verbier, where he threw down a brilliant climb to create time-gaps. The second was his individual time-trial performance. Only two performances, plus marking moves and small time-gaps here and there, and he won the Tour by minutes. A stronger challenge might have created more work, but Contador seemed to have the Tour under control, and perhaps the margin of victory was deceptively small.
Andy Schleck looked comfortably the number 2 in this race. His aggression energized the last week, and as he improves, he may yet challenge Contador. However, for now, Contador is on the way to making history – a fourth Grand Tour, second Tour de France, and only 26, if he is managed well and stays out of the murky waters that affect the sport, then who knows what might be achievable? In cycling, though, nothing seems certain…
Looking ahead – a 2010 script is already taking shape
Already, attention has turned to next year. Lance Armstrong’s announcement that he’ll form a new team, Radioshack, means the lines of combat will look different in 2010. At this stage, there is no guarantee that Radioshack will even ride the Tour, though it is difficult to see how they could be excluded – Armstrong is likely to fill its rosters with some big names.
Contador is likely to move on, now that Alexander Vinokourov (he of the blood mixing in his thighs to cause a positive test) is returning to “his” team. He may end up at a Spanish team. Then the Schlecks have improved each Tour – if they continue to do so, they’ll be combative and in contention in 2010.
All in all, it’s exciting to look forward already. And most amazing of all, not a doping story to speak of all Tour! However, before the champagne corks pop and fireworks explode in celebration, I will say that I do believe we may yet come back to the 2009 Tour for some retrospective testing. One positive step taken is the commitment to store samples for future use, and so who knows, we might yet be looking back on 2009 before we look ahead to 2010.
That’s pretty much it from Tour de France coverage. ONE MORE post, where I’ll look back and attempt to summarize the Tour – highs, lows, success stories, failures, highlights. I’ll give Mark Cavendish and Cadel Evans a mention they’ve probably warranted but have lost in the discussion of climbing, power outputs and pacing strategies! That comes tomorrow.
And then we move onto the plethora of other sports – swimming world champs, athletics on the go, Jamaican sprinters who test positive, you name it! We’ll try to cover it!
Join us for the Tour recap soon, and more beyond!