Tour de France 2009 – The verdict

By Steve Mitchell

After 3500 kilometres of intense racing, the world’s greatest bike race finally reached its conclusion on Sunday on the Champs-Elysees.

A fantastic performance by the British contingent and the ongoing internal wrangling inside Team Astana were the main talking points of a race that once again, captured the public’s imagination.

Mark Cavendish is a rare breed of British sportsman. Not afraid to air his views to the pursuing media that surrounds him, he is also a supreme champion and the best in the world at what he does. His astonishing win on the greatest stage of all on Sunday confirmed that he is cycling’s hottest property and the fastest man on the planet.

What makes ‘Cav’ unique is the cocksure, genuine confidence he exudes in everything he does. This Tour de France has seen the Manxman upset his French hosts in an airport departure lounge and publicly declare the green points jersey “tainted” after his 18 point deduction for illegal sprinting in stage 14 virtually handed his main rival Thor Hushovd the prize.

But his most controversial statement implied a rival American team, Garmin Slipstream, were ‘disrespectful’ to his Colombia teammate George Hincapie, by not allowing the faithful old warhorse to stay out on a break to take the coveted yellow jersey.

On the road it was mission accomplished for Cavendish; six wins in this tour brought his overall total to ten. He now has the most stage wins of any British rider in Le Grand Boucle and his potential for more is frightening. In 12 months time would anyone dare bet against him standing on the podium in Paris wearing that green jersey?

If Cavendish is outspoken, the Tour’s biggest revelation, Bradley Wiggins, is certainly not. An amazing conversion from track racing to road racing was crowned with a fourth place finish in the overall classification, equalling the best by a British rider since the great Robert Millar in 1984.

A simply outstanding achievement, he climbed the mountain passes of the Alps and the Pyrenees like a seasoned grimpeur and frightened the life out of the big favourites who seemed totally stunned by his climbing ability.

As the final individual time trial around the beautiful town of Annecy came into view, race favourite Alberto Contador publicly stated that he feared the Briton more than any other of his main rivals, including a certain Lance Armstorng. On stage 18 the 40.5 kilometre time trial course seemed perfect for Wiggins, the real question was how much stamina he had left in his legs following two gruelling days in the Alps.

The previous 48 hours had seen ‘Wiggo’ slip from third to sixth in the general classification, four minutes and 53 seconds behind race leader Contador, but most importantly, one minute and 28 seconds behind the third placed rider, Luxembourger Frank Schleck, 58 seconds on Armstrong in fourth, and 11 seconds on the big German Andreas Kloden in fifth. Wiggins knew he was by far the superior time trialist and could claw back some of that lost time.

The Briton gave absolutely everything, finishing the stage in sixth place he had certainly put some time into his rivals, the question was how much? An amazing effort had propelled Wiggins back up to fourth spot, only 11 seconds back on Armstrong in third. A podium, although improbable, was still in his grasp as the peloton headed for the grand finale, the unforgiving climb to the summit of the imposing Mont Ventoux.

Since the start of the Tour in Monaco, the penultimate stage was predicted by many to be the one that would decide the outcome. However, in keeping with how the race had progressed this year, Contador looked to have already secured the yellow jersey going into stage 20 as he held an almost unassailable lead on his main rivals.

The Spaniard had a four minutes 11 second advantage on his nearest challenger, Andy Schleck, and five minutes 21 seconds on Armstrong in third. Wiggins in fourth was looking over his shoulder as three riders, Kloden, Frank Schleck and Italy’s Vicenzo Nibali were all within two minutes of him.

The race for the final podium place was going to be fascinating. As if the stage needed any more drama, the intense heat had caused forest fires around the area, and as the peloton headed out of departure town Montelimar into the hills, smoke was trailing up from behind every ridge, pure Tour de France.

As the peloton arrived at the foot of the “Giant of Provence”, two riders from an earlier breakaway, Spain’s Juan Manuel Garate and Germany’s Tony Martin took the race by the scruff of the neck and raced into a commanding lead. The main protagonists were in the chasing pack around four minutes back, all seemed too scared to launch an all out attack and jeopardise their chances of glory.

Andy Schleck knew that to have any chance of taking the maillot jaune he would have to attack, but after a couple of failed attempts, he resigned himself to the fact that Contador was just too strong and looked to consolidate second spot.

Wiggins was hanging in there but was unable to shake off Armstrong as the big Texan followed his every move up the mountain. The main concern for the Briton now was the re-emergence of Frank Schleck. A big mountain specialist, he was helping his brother Andy to the summit whilst at the same time, cutting into Wiggins’s advantage over him.

Fourth spot was now looking perilous for the Londoner. The two breakaway riders were home and dry, Garate taking a famous stage win for Spain followed by the impressive young German Martin. Now all eyes were focused on the battle behind, Andy Schleck and Contador arrived at the summit together 38 seconds back, Contador raising his arm in triumph, his second tour victory secured. Armstrong followed three seconds later, the podium was complete. Frank Schleck then arrived and the clock kept ticking as Britain waited for Wiggins to appear.

As he came into the final corner, it was touch and go but as he crossed the line, the exhausted Briton looked at the clock and gave a salute to the crowd, he had held onto fourth spot by just three seconds, incredible.

It had been a momentous Tour de France for Britain, our best ever, with other sterling efforts from Charles Wegelius, and after his unforgettable ride into Barcelona in the opening week, David Millar. As the peloton got ready for the homecoming into Paris, all talk was of the British Sky Team that is being launched in September and who would represent us in next year’s event.

At this moment, no rider details are available but speculation is rife and we all know who that is about. The animosity that had plagued the Tour for Astana was almost at an end. Armstrong announcing he was setting up a new team next year.

Team Radioshack will be headed by him and will consist of at least three riders currently riding for the Kazak outfit, but as yet no further information has been released. However, one thing already confirmed is that Johan Bruyneel, the current sporting director at Astana, is leaving to join Armstrong in his new venture.

After Cavendish’s demolition of his rivals in the final stage, all eyes turned to the podium as Contador was crowned champion for a second time and a third consecutive win for Spain. Thor Hushovd claimed the green point’s jersey and then received an apology from Cavendish for his outpourings earlier in the race.

Andy Schleck took the white jersey for best young rider and overall second on the general classification. Armstrong completed the podium with third place, a remarkable achievement in his comeback year. His rivalry over the coming months with Contador is one that all cycling fans will relish, culminating in next year’s race when the big showdown will surely take place.

The final words however belong to our Bradley, who on his Twitter site gave us an idea of how he would recuperate from his exertions: “Tomorrows plans, Wife, Kids, Scooter, Guitar’s, Wine and good music”. Chapeau to you all.

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