I guess all good things eventually have to come to an end. So, the third and final weekend of the 23-day spectacle in bicycle racing approaches. I find that my enthusiasm for this annual drama over hill and dale has not waned in a decade. It still fascinates, even though the originating interest--an unlikely American who is also a cancer survivor winning the event year after year--has faded from glory. Whoever takes top place on the podium on the Champs Elysees on Sunday, here are 7 things I take from this year’s edition of the Tour de France:
1. Anticipation that 7-time consecutive winner, last year’s 3rd-place finisher, and 38-year old father Lance Armstrong could possibly win one more was a compelling storyline through the first week. However, when Armstrong punctured a tire at a critical moment on cobblestones in one stage and then crashed three times in another to lose significant time to the other race leaders, his dream ended. To his tribute, he stayed in the race and supported his teammates. He even led a breakaway group to the top of Col du Tourmalet on Tuesday. It’s been an incredible ride for the Texan. I hope he’s cheered resoundingly in Paris on Sunday.
2. Andy Schleck of Luxembourg and defending champion Alberto Contador of Spain have provided a great story of rivalry throughout these weeks. Their rivalry took a nasty turn on Monday when Contador took advantage of a mechanical failure on Schleck’s bike to wrest the Yellow Jersey from the 25-year-old. It took a better turn on Thursday when the two dueled valiantly on the second ascent of Tourmalet and hugged each other at the mountain-top finish line. Schleck may not win this Tour, but he has won the hearts of many cycling enthusiasts worldwide.
3. Alberto Contador is likely to win his third Tour de France on Sunday. He is currently ahead of Schleck by 8 seconds, but he is better at time trial racing, which is the venue for Saturday’s stage 19. If he has the ride of a lifetime and Contador is mediocre in that time trial, it is feasible for Scheck to overtake Contador, but not likely. For numerous reasons, I am not a fan of Contador, but he appears to be the man to beat in this chapter of the Tour de France and, in a way similar to Lance Armstrong, may be so for years to come.
4. Americans have had mixed results in the Tour de France this year. With Lance’s crashes, Levi Leipheimer had an opportunity to move into podium position (he’s placed third before). But his climbing did not kept pace with others in the top ten; on Thursday he crested Tourmalet 8 minutes after Schleck and Contador. American team leader for Garmin-Transitions Christian Vande Velde left the Tour early due to injuries in crashes. On the other hand, Chris Horner of Team Radioshack is now in the top ten and looks to hold the most promise for an American on the Tour de France podium next year.
5. French cyclists are experiencing a revival and celebration in their home country during this Tour. Together, they have won by far the most stages, particularly in the mountains. Of note are Sylvan Chavanel (two stage wins and a spell in the Yellow Jersey), Pierrick Fedrigo, Christophe Riblon and Thomas Voekler. Also, Anthony Charteau will win the King of the Mountains competition, wearing the Polka-dot Jersey into Paris. Glad to see French cyclists emerging again.
6. Mark Cavendish, the young and very talented sprinter from Great Britain, sputtered at the start this Tour de France, then began to dominate the stages that offered sprint finishes. He’s won four of the seven sprint-finishing stages. One more are on tap—the grand finale on the Champs Elysees on Sunday. He’s not yet wearing the Green Jersey, but a win in Paris could make him the sprint champ.
7. More than anything else, crashes defined this Tour de France. The first week saw numerous crashes and caused the exit of some of the top contenders and specialists, including Christian Vande Velde and Frank Schleck. Armstrong, whose crashes in previous Tours had been very few, was involved in no fewer than five crashes this year. What’s happening to cause that? A good question for Tour organizers as they plan next year’s course.
I will be watching on TV or the Internet as the Tour de France rolls into Paris on Sunday. Someday, I hope to be in France during July to follow the Tour stage by stage. Yeah, I’ll probably be one of those crazy people running alongside the cyclists as they toil to the top of Tourmalet or L’Alpe d’Huez. It’s on my bucket list. That, and to ride a few of the more difficult stages of this, the greatest spectacle in racing (sorry, Indy).