It may not have been the closest Tour ever - Lemond's eight seconds are safe for another year - but since the emergence of Lance only 2003 rivals it for drama. But the tension and the closeness of the race was not the only reason I think we had a Tour to remember. The defining feature of this tour is surely that we had the privilege of watching not one but three all time greats strut their stuff, and, as an added bonus, had a fourth along for a farewell ride.
Just think of the delights that we have seen:
Alberto Contador - now winner of three TdFs and two other three week races. Undisputed master of Grand Tours, until someone proves otherwise. He hasn’t lost since he started winning. He can hang with the specialist TTers and is always in the first group on the hill. No weak spots at all (apart from speaking Spanish, which means that some English speaking media find him tough to warm to). A sign of his dominance is that people are saying he was below form this Tour. Below form and in yellow in Paris – yes, I would like me some of that. OK, so his hegemony may be under challenge for the first time since it appeared, but once more he did what he had to do, which is all you can ask. With the rise of the Schlecklet, we can’t assume that he is just going to keep on winning for ever more, but – picking a number our of thin air – he could well get another two Yellow Jerseys, which puts him up there in the pantheon. So this race had one of the all time great GT riders, in the prime of his career.
Fabian Cancellara - in many ways, those who only watch the Tour miss the true greatness of Spartacus. Yes, they see him smash the timetrials into the middle of next week, but that is only part of the Swiss Bear's talents – and the least photogenic part at that. Which made this year doubly special: we got to see Spartacus the One Day Beast on the prowl. Stage 3 was one of the most compelling stages I have ever watched (please, ASO, more cobbles next year) and seeing Spartacus ride the entire peloton off his wheel was a sight for the ages. And even better, it was not for himself. This was Spartacus paying his dues – rendering unto Caesar, if you like, and being the teammate he demands of his squad in the spring. There was no saving himself for an attempt at the stage (with Thor in the group everyone knew what was coming). No – he was in every second counts mode, and drove Andy to the line to deliver nearly all the seconds that Andy gained on Alberto in the whole Tour. Perhaps partly due to that effort, and partly due to the size of the hills, he faded more than usual in the mountains, but, almost as though the cycling gods knew what they had done, the weather and his skill combined once more to dominate the final TT. As he crossed the line, several light years ahead of the competition (Tony Martin, nice try), the voice of Michael Caine echoed around the stage: “You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”
Mark Cavendish – he evokes mixed feelings around PdC (I admit I am a complete fanboy). His personality is not to everyone’s taste – that I can understand. But much of the Bahing comes from the sheer predictability of his wins. Give us change! Give us uncertainty! goes up the cry. Give us genius, I respond. The man is a sprinting phenomenon, a lesson driven home by the comic camera effect on the last three hundred metres of the Champs: Here is Thor, pounding away. Ah, here is AleJet’s head, gaining slowly. Meep meep piaow!!! WHAT WAS THAT? as Cavendish shoots past. Face facts here people, the guy is simply 5kph faster in the finale than everyone else. That is talent, and we get to watch it. And even here, the Tour conspired to help us. By sending Renshaw home, it shone the spotlight entirely on Cavendish’s skill and power. No lead out trains necessary: park him on his opponent’s wheel, and it’s a given. The only question is how many lengths he will win by, and in which order he thanks Bernie, Tony and Mark in. That, my friends, is cycling gold. As the wins rack up, you start to wonder whether it is a when, rather than an if, that Eddie's 34 will fall.
And finally, Lance – he doesn’t even need a surname. Again personality, and again polemica. There is a small Amazonian rainforest, both real and virtual, which has been sacrificed to producing screed on L’Armstrong. I am not aiming to add to it here. Rather, my point is simple: seven. Chapeau, sir. And fare well.
So – three and one are the story of this tour; and each will have his place in history. What a race.