Cadel Evans (BMC) sealed Tour de France victory on Sunday after enjoying an untroubled final day on the road to Paris, while Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad) dominated proceedings in the finishing sprint on the Champs-Élysées to secure the green jersey.
For the third time in as many attempts, Cavendish took a comfortable win on the famous boulevard, and for the third consecutive year, Andy Schleck (Leopard Trek) stood on the second step of the podium in the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe. Familiar as those scenes were, however, the real story of the day was a rather more novel one, as Evans became the first rider from the Southern Hemisphere to win the Tour de France.
On crossing the finish line, Evans was struggling to come to terms with the magnitude of his achievement and admitted that it was difficult to estimate the impact his win would have in Australia.
“I haven’t had time to consider that aspect, to be honest,” Evans said. “It’s been a long, long process and it will take a long time to realise what it means.”
Evans finished 1:34 clear of Andy Schleck and 2:30 ahead of his older brother Fränk to finally win the Tour after years of heartache, and he was keen to pay tribute to the support of his family and his BMC squad.
“A few people always believed in me and they’re the people that matter the most. We did it,” Evans smiled. “It’s been a real pleasure these past three weeks.”
In spite of becoming the first siblings to finish on the Tour podium, there was palpable disappointment for the Schleck brothers at falling short of bringing the yellow jersey back to Luxembourg for the first time since Charly Gaul’s triumph in 1958.
The stage winner Mark Cavendish was understandably in rather more ebullient mood after his fifth stage win of this Tour, and his twentieth in total, a remarkable figure for a rider who only turned 26 in May. In seeing off the challenge of Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky) and André Greipel (Omega Pharma-Lotto), not only did the Manxman underline his status as the pre-eminent sprinter of his generation, he also secured the first green jersey of his career.
Cavendish explained that the headwind that greeted the riders coming off the Place de la Concorde meant that he started his sprint later than in previous years.
“I left it until 170 metres to go today, I knew it was going to be tough,” Cavendish said. “I’m so, so happy and so proud of the guys. It’s a great way to finish the Tour.
“I’ve been trying to get this [the green jersey] for the past few years and finally I’ve done it.”
Cadel Evans knows how he feels.
Familiar feel to final stage
At the end of a Tour de France that has deviated dramatically from the script anticipated before the start, there was a distinct lack of ad-libbing on the final 95km leg to Paris.
There was a sombre start to proceedings in the south Parisian suburb of Créteil on Sunday, as the peloton paused for a minute’s silence in memory of the victims of the tragic events in Norway on Friday, while a heartfelt tribute was also paid to one of the Tour’s favourite sons. The late Laurent Fignon, who died of cancer in August last year, first rose to prominence as an amateur with the famous US Créteil club, and a plaque in his honour was unveiled in the presence of family and former teammates prior to Sunday’s stage
As per tradition, the pace was relaxed as the bunch ambled out of Créteil towards Paris. The first half of the stage was a promenade towards the city centre, with Cadel Evans and his BMC squad obliging the photographers by riding at the head of the bunch, while the Australian also had time to accept the congratulations of many of his peers.
Once the Eifel Tower reared into view on the horizon, however, there was a slight but perceptible shift in attitude and focus, and the détente ended formally once the peloton hit the iconic Champs-Élysées circuit with a little under 50km to race.
After BMC had yielded their position on the front of the bunch, the attacking could begin in earnest, but on the first lap, nobody succeeded in breaking the deadlock. It took a determined sortie from Ben Swift (Sky) with 40km to go to spark the main break of the afternoon.
The Englishman was joined in his attempt by Kristjan Koren (Liquigas-Cannondale), Sergio Paulinho (RadioShack), Christophe Riblon (Ag2r-La Mondiale) and Lars Bak (HTC-Highroad), and the sextet took advantage of a lull in the peloton’s pace after the intermediate sprint with 35km to race to stretch their lead out to beyond 45 seconds.
At that sprint, Cavendish delivered an ominous warning to the peloton by careering clear to take the points on offer for 7th place, while his lead-out man Mark Renshaw squeezed out José Joaquin Rojas for 8th and furthered strengthened Cavendish’s grip on the green jersey.
Cavendish wins it
With Bak sitting comfortably in the leading group, HTC-Highroad were under no obligation to lead the pursuit behind, and the break still held a 20-second lead as they reached the bell with 6km to race. In the finale, however, both Lampre-ISD and Quick Step contributed to the chase, while HTC’s train cranked into action on behalf of Cavendish.
The last survivors up front were Bak and Swift, but when they too were reeled in with a little over three kilometres to race, HTC stepped up their efforts in earnest, and a number of speculative attempts, including one from Carlos Barredo (Rabobank) were promptly snuffed out by Cavendish’s watchmen.
With Bernhard Eisel and Tony Martin setting a scorching pace along the Rue de Rivoli, there was a grim air of inevitability about the finishing sprint, and when Renshaw swung off after guiding his leader through the final sweep from the Place de la Concorde, Cavendish unsheathed a razor sharp sprint to put his rivals to the sword for the twentieth time in four years. Boasson Hagen and Greipel came closest, but they had no answer to Cavendish’s burst in the final 200 metres, while Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Cervélo) had to settle for fourth, ahead of a surprising Fabian Cancellara (Leopard Trek).
Not content with another victory on sprinting’s most evocative stage, however, Cavendish already had another major rendezvous in mind seconds after crossing the line. “I’ve got a world championships to think about in a few months,” he warned.
The head and the legs
The Schlecks with Evans on the podium
While Cavendish sealed the green jersey, Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) was Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) was crowned king of the mountains, French revelation Pierre Rolland (Europcar) carried off the white jersey and Garmin-Cervélo secured the teams classification.
But the day belonged to Cadel Evans, who has been a beacon of regularity in a Tour de France marked by the inconsistency of many of its favourites. While Andy Schleck appeared to reach the zenith with his remarkable raid over the Izoard to triumph on the Galibier, he was weighed down by the twin burdens of his substandard time-trialling and his tentative descending.
Similarly, for all of Alberto Contador’s (Saxo Bank-Sungard) defiance on the last mountain stage to l’Alpe d’Huez, his three weeks had far more troughs than peaks, while the plucky Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) had already reached the summit of his ambition by holding yellow into the final week. Evans, meanwhile, was remarkable in his consistency, and never fell any lower than fourth on general classification throughout the Tour.
So often maligned in the past for appearing to calculate rather to speculate in the Grand Tours, Evans finally struck the right balance this July. With the trump card of the Grenoble time trial at the back of his mind, Evans played his hand sensibly for most of the Tour. But when the race was on the line on the final haul to the Galibier on Thursday, it was Evans himself who seized the initiative, and his forcing both reduced the gap to Schleck and ended Contador’s challenge.
Quite what place this Tour de France will occupy in the pantheon remains to be seen. The seemingly more human performances of many of its protagonists has led some observers to hail this race as being emblematic of a sport that is steadily laying the scourge of doping to rest. Regrettably, recent history has repeatedly suggested that one should be extremely cautious in making such assertions.
One thing is certain, however. Tour founder Henri Desgrange said that the ideal winner should triumph using “the head and the legs.” The 2011 champion had both qualities in spades.
This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.