After 20 stages, 3 weeks and 2,200 miles, over cobblestones, up 6,000 foot mountains in the Alps and Pyrenees and speeding down at 100 kilometers an hour in relentless heat and baking sun; through rain, bad roads, crashes on oil slicks, injuries, illness and an ejection of one Mark Renshaw by the tough rules committee, 197 riders who began the world renown most physically challenging Tour de France cycling race were pared down to a very elite 170 men who reached Paris, July 25.
The last stage consisted of relatively flat roads ending with an insane sprint up the Champs- Elysees for the final chance to get the maximum points and win the sprinters' green jersey.
The green jersey continued to be a battle until this last sprint in Paris in which "Ale-Jet," Allessandro Petacchi collected the most points to capture the green jersey. However, in the nail biting last stage at breakneck speeds, the "Manx Missile," Mark Cavendish catapulted from nowhere to go over the finish line first, winning the stage and living up to his fame as the "fastest man in the world on a bike."
The Maillot Jaune (yellow jersey), the Golden Fleece of cycling, was won by Alberto Contador of Spain in what had been a daily duel with the "best young rider" from 2009, Andy Schleck of Luxemberg. He had no help from his brother Frank, who was injured in the earlier stages. Up the brutal Col du Tourmelat, Andy Schleck won the stage. These two top challengers for the yellow jersey equally challenged each other only eight seconds apart.
The next day in the time trial, Contador pulled ahead and won the tour by 39 seconds.
There have been few such closely matched opponents perhaps, since 1989 with the duel of American Greg LeMond and Laurent Fignon.
Before the last stages, Anthony Charteau had clinched the red polka dot jersey for "King of the Mountains" and there was no question that Andy Schleck was again wearing the Maillot Blanc or white jersey of the best young rider for the 3rd time as he took 2nd place in this year's tour.
It was fun to spend three weeks in awe of these amazing riders with nicknames like "The Little Prince" (Damiano Cunego); "The Can, Can Man Fabian" (Fabian Cancellara), also called "Spartacus," multiple winner of the time trial; and the "Silent Assassin," Denis Menchov, there when you least expect, who won 3rd place on the podium in Paris.
The most famous rider during this last decade, Lance Armstrong, a cancer survivor and only winner of seven tours de France came in 23rd in this year's tour. A large sign displayed by the French said "Hats Off to Lance!" He did not win as an individual this time but won as part of the 'best team,' "Radioshack" and stood proudly with his complete team of 9, all of whom had made it to Paris together. Only 8 of 22 teams made it to Paris intact.
To win at any point in the Tour de France, it is said you must have "fire in your belly!" I certainly agree!
Photo: Alberto Contador during the 2009 Tour de France. (hyku/cc)