PARIS — It was a Tour de France many hailed as a classic. There were crashes, dropouts, surprises and, above all, a new champion.
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 resolve, but the competition itself was not that engrossing. Alberto Contador then stepped up and won three titles in four years, with his third still in limbo after a positive drug test last year.
This year, with defending champion Contador far from his best, the race was wide open. Despite the early departure of some pre-race favorites, seven key riders were in contention halfway through the final week. And that’s not counting Frenchman Thomas Voeckler, who led through the Pyrenees and most of the Alps.
The rivalry between Luxembourg brothers Frank and Andy Schleck finally played out after it was cut short last year by a crash that forced Frank to quit.
The brothers displayed nothing but devotion to each other. Frank seemed genuinely delighted at his younger sibling’s success. They embraced at the line seconds after Andy finished his time trial Saturday. Their second- and third-place finishes for Leopard-Trek proved a team doesn’t have to tear itself apart if it has more than one contender — though it might take the strength of family t ies to make it work.
Two Italians — Ivan Basso and Damiano Cunego — were in the hunt, though their climbing skills weren’t enough to counter their poor time trials. Contador was still dangerous, but he couldn’t make up the time he’d lost at the beginning of the race. Another Spaniard, Olympic champion Samuel Sanchez, finished sixth and won the polka-dot jersey for best climber.
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 rider said after his triumphant entry into Paris on Sunday.
Up every mountain, Evans was never more than one cycle length behind his rivals. With a small lead that he’d picked up in the early stages and a lot of strength in the time trials, he knew he didn’t need to attack to win.
Still, when Andy Schleck broke away from the field on the climb of the Galibier pass on Thursday, some thought Evans’ BMC team 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 2½.
“The real highlight of it all was the last three or four kilometers 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 kilometers of a time trial wasn’t that hard.”
The race for the green jersey, given to the best sprinter, was far more clear. Trying to counter the almost-untouchable speed of Britain’s Mark Cavendish, organizers 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 age 26 is already fifth on the career 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 race made for plenty of rough riding. Crashes undermined Contador’s chances and forced out Bradley Wiggins, Jurgen Van Den Broeck and Alexandre Vinokourov, who immediately announced his retirement.
A rash move by a TV car sent rider Juan Antonio Flecha flying and catapulted Johnny Hoogerland into a barbed wire fence. He 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 expected to hold the yellow jersey for only a day or two but showed extraordinary strength to stay with Evans and the Schlecks through most of the mountain stages and finished fourth overall.
Voeckler discovered the strength of French feeling for him and his teammate Pierre Rolland — the best young rider — when he was cheered the whole way Saturday.
“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 was Bernard Hinault in 1985, but the country finally has 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 strong showing was made by Norway. Sprinter Thor Hushovd had looked to be past his best, but he outlasted younger riders and won two stage. Compatriot Edvald Boasson Hagen, 24 and riding in his first Tour, also won two stages, proving himself a sprinter, a climber and even a time trialer. He set himself up as a future contender.
By the race’s end, their country was consumed by grief. Before the final stage, the two riders stood together as the pack marked a minute of silence for the victims of the twin attacks in Norway.
Contador began the race to bood by fans after his positive drug test following last year’s Tour victory. 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!”