96th Tour de France
Stage 21 - Montereau-Fault-Yonne to Paris/Champs-Elysees) - 164.0 km (102.0 mi)
26 July 2009
For all the buildup to the finish line on the famed stretch of cobblestones on the Champs-Elysees, it never even ended up being a real contest. Cutting the final corner in an expertly smooth arc seemingly lacking amongst the rest of the peloton, Mark Renshaw pulled his vaunted teammate through the bend and into the record books. Renshaw, who is known as the fastest lead-out man in cycling, had delivered his patron to the line so far ahead of every other rival that he could sit up on his bicycle after the effort and still place second on the illustrious stage. The former world track champion at the junior ranks has found his niche, gaining yet another bit of notoriety for his troubles.
As for his teammate, Mark Cavendish, his thirty-meter victory over the field was so absurd that it evoked memories of Rachel Alexandra barreling away by more than twenty lengths over the field at this year's Kentucky Oaks back in May in Louisville. With his sixth victory in this year's Tour de France and tenth in his career, Cavendish continues to signal a changing of the guard in the ranks of the sprinters. At only 24 years old, he's already two-sevenths on the way toward breaking Eddy Merckx's all-time stage victories record at the Tour. And by making it to Paris, he has also shown that he could be making a run at the green jersey at the Tour for years to come; perhaps one day he will be challenging Erik Zabel's record of six consecutive conquests of the maillot vert.
But he would not win green this year, after the race officials deemed it appropriate to relegate Cavendish from thirteenth to last place in the bunch after Thor Hushovd's Cervelo team lodged a protest against the sprint finish on Stage 14. Cavendish was disqualified for "dangerous riding", as they adjudged that the British rider tried to put his competitor into the barriers. But looking at the replay, it appeared that the Manxman held his line through a right-hand bend; it was the barriers that narrowed the road, not any move by Cavendish. The decision by the race officials caused a fourteen-point swing -- which proved decisive, as Hushovd won his second green jersey by just ten points. Had this decision gone the other way, Cavendish would've summited the podium twice in Paris.
Even this bit of intriguing contention, though, would not put a damper on the myriad performances which graced this 2009 Tour de France. We saw Alberto Contador, the Spaniard in yellow, sip Champagne with his teammates as he playfully danced his way on the pedals across the route of the final stage. Here darting off from the pack, there holding the time-check board announcing his victory in chalk, and even draping himself in a Spanish-flag cape, Contador reveled in the thrill of being the top dog in the Tour all throughout the ride toward Paris. This win marks his his fourth straight victory in grand tours he has contested. Just as Cavendish has an opportunity to surpass Zabel in the all-time green jersey and Merckx in stage wins, so too does Contador have a legitimate shot at eclipsing his nominal teammate for the most yellow jerseys in Tour history and Merckx for all time grand-tour overall victories.
Think about it -- Contador already has two Tour de France victories at 26 years of age, whereas Armstrong didn't start his streak of victories until he was 27 years old in 1999. Sure, Lance had cancer... but without the radical restructuring of his body which occurred from fighting the disease, Armstrong would've been content to continue on as a classics rider who faded come July. Contador, with his own perseverance story and scars across his skull after undergoing radical surgery in 2004 to cure a cerebral cavernoma, looked more like the prototype champion than Lance ever did. While much was made of the two leaders and their tensions in trying to assume leadership of Astana, it was readily apparent as the race went on that the Spaniard was simply a class above his American counterpart.
Which is not to cheapen the results of the Texan, who came back after a three-plus-year retirement to find his way back onto the podium in Paris. While many Americans will no doubt come away disappointed by a third-place finish, those who better understand cycling will recognize Armstrong's accomplishment as being perhaps even more impressive than any of his seven victories. To come back after nearly a quadrennial out of the professional peloton and still be able to compete on such a high level is nothing short of legendary. Writing another chapter in an already-storied career, Armstrong sent notice to every other cyclist in the professional ranks that he intends to continue contending at least through next year -- and he proved that he is capable of doing so. As he heads to a new team of his own creation, sponsored by American electronics retailer Radio Shack, he will surely still be right there in the hunt next year, trying to claw his way back into the jersey that for the better part of a decade was his garb of choice.
Another rider who heralded his long-term legitimacy was the young Luxembourgian from Saxo Bank, Andy Schleck. Slotting in between Contador and Armstrong into second place, Schleck snagged his second straight white jersey as the best rider age 25 or younger in the Tour de France. Along with his brother Frank, Andy will only get better as he puts another Tour's worth of experience under his belt. Persistently attacking throughout, Schleck is the kind of game competitor that brought a breath of fresh air to the Tour. An opportunist who constantly seeks every second of advantage, the young rider will be too old to contest the white jersey, but he will come to France with a legitimate shot at reaching the podium yet again. Already having garnered two second-place finishes in grand tours, it seems only a matter of time before he climbs the top step of the podium. The coming years should prove ever more exciting as both he and Contador duel for the spoils in the prime of their respective careers.
They might just continue to be joined in contention by the biggest revelation of this Tour, Bradley Wiggins. A former Olympic and world track champion, Wiggins showed an improved form in the mountains that will bode well for his own chances to climb the podium in coming years. Impressively sticking alongside the other contenders through the Pyrenees and Alps when the naysayers continued to assert that the next stage would be his Waterloo, the British star on the Garmin-Slipstream squad still has room to improve -- a scary proposition for every other rider in the sport. Hopefully he will continue that progress rather than fading back into the field.
For Franco Pellizotti, bedecked in the polka-dots of the King of the Mountains, the 2009 Tour is the culmination of a long career spent in the saddle. Also snagging the award for the most combative rider in the race, the Italian impressed with his consistency in both the high mountains and the lesser climbs. His opportunistic ride proved that his third-place finish in this year's Giro d'Italia was no fluke. Ultimately, his maillot a poix was won in decisive fashion, as he finished with more than half again the points of his nearest competitor, Egoi Martinez. Such a dominant performance when the roads ramp upward cannot be discounted. While Pellizotti, who is far from being a dominant time-trialist, will never win the overall title in France, he can continue to assert his strength on the mountains for the next few years and will be a marked man when the race begins anew in 2010.
And another Tour in the books wouldn't be complete without paying homage to the lanterne rouge, Yauheni Hutarovich. The lanterne rouge, so named because of the red light found on the caboose of old-time trains, is traditionally given each year to the rider who finishes dead last in the overall standings of the race. Finishing 158th out of 158 riders in Paris would seem at first to be a dubious distinction. But merely reaching Paris is an accomplishment in itself, as any of the twenty-two riders who dropped out in the preceding twenty stages would gladly lay claim to that title. Hutarovich, the Belarussian road racing champion, proved that the lanterne rouge is little more than a title. He would end up fifth in the prestigious Champs-Elysees finish; and with a third-place finish on Stage 11, the 25-year-old Hutarovich should return to the Tour next year with a chance of winning a stage and perhaps, even, improving on that 158th place finish.
Another year is in the books, and we have reason to celebrate all the riders who had the mettle to last all three weeks and 3360 kilometers from Monaco to Paris. The racing was fierce, the field was deep, and the riders -- so far as the best drug-testing protocol in all of sports was able to determine -- were cleaner than we've seen in ages. We can celebrate Contador's yellow, Schleck's aggressively-earned white, Hushovd's green, Cavendish's six stages, Pellizotti's polka-dots, and the expoits of every other rider without any incriminations of indiscretion. The season moves on, but this year's race will live on in memory for decades to come...
RESULTS - STAGE 20
- Mark Cavendish (Columbia) 4:02:18
- Mark Renshaw (Columbia)
- Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Slipstream)
- Gerald Ciolek (Milram)
- Yauheni Hutarovich (Francaise des Jeux)
- Thor Hushovd (Cervelo TestTeam)
- Jose Joaquin Rojas (Caisse d'Epargne)
- Marco Bandiera (Lampre)
- Daniele Bennati (Liquigas)
- William Bonnet (BBox-Bouygues Telecom)
- Alberto Contador (Astana) 85:48:35
- Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) +4:11
- Lance Armstrong (Astana +5:24
- Bradley Wiggins (Garmin-Slipstream) +6:01
- Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank) +6:04
- Andreas Kloden (Astana) +6:42
- Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) +7:35
- Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Slipstream) +12:04
- Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas) +14:16
- Christophe Le Mevel (Francaise des Jeux) +14:25
- Thor Hushovd (Cervelo TestTeam) 280
- Mark Cavendish (Columbia) 270
- Gerald Ciolek (Milram) 172
- Jose Joaquin Rojas (Caisse d'Epargne) 145
- Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Slipstream) 136
- Nicolas Roche (AG2R-La Mondiale) 122
- Oscar Freire (Rabobank) 119
- Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas) 104
- Alberto Contador (Astana) 101
- Andreas Kloden (Astana) 89
KING OF THE MOUNTAINS
- Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas) 210
- Egoi Martinez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) 135
- Alberto Contador (Astana) 126
- Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) 111
- Pierrick Fedrigo (BBox-Bouygues Telecom) 99
- Christophe Kern (Cofidis) 89
- Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank) 88
- Mikel Astarloza (Euskaltel-Euskadi) 86
- Juan Manuel Garate (Rabobank) 86
- Sandy Casar (Francaise des Jeux) 84
BEST YOUNG RIDER
- Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) 85:52:46
- Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) +3:24
- Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas) +10:05
- Pierre Rolland (BBox-Bouygues Telecom) +33:33
- Nicolas Roche (AG2R-La Mondiale) +34:09
- Brice Feillu (Agritubel) +37:03
- Peter Velits (Milram) +42:24
- Chris Anker Sorensen (Saxo Bank) +45:36
- Tony Martin (Columbia) +50:53
- Yury Trofimov (BBox-Bouygues Telecom) +1:05:12
- Astana -- 256:02:58
- Garmin-Slipstream -- +22:35
- Saxo Bank -- +28:34
- AG2R-La Mondiale -- +31:47
- Liquigas -- +43:31
- Euskaltel-Euskadi -- +58:05
- Francaise des Jeux -- +1:01:48
- Cofidis -- +1:05:34
- Katusha -- +1:13:57
- Agritubel -- +1:20:38