A bit of unnecessary analysis, to cap off a stunning day. Here's a short list of items that make this Tour de France one we'll remember fondly, however it turns out. In no particular order...
1. Balance. With Carlos Sastre holding an advantage over Cadel Evans of 1.34 heading into Saturday, we are looking at something close to a dead heat between the climber and the time trialist. Seems like the Tour tends to set up very well for the chronomen to have the last word. Last year was arguable -- Contador held off the pure chrono guys, though he himself is no slouch. In 2006 Landis had an iron grip on the race even before overtaking Pereiro. Before that, the Lance years. 1998 was the last time a pure climber overcame serious infirmity in the time trial to win the Tour. I'm not saying the race should be tilted toward the mountain men, but if I had to choose, I'd prefer that style. ITT-heavy races encourage pretty conservative racing.
2. Drama. Apart from the fans of Laurent Fignon, most of us think of the 1989 Tour as the gold standard. Well, here we go again: the maillot jaune uses the last mountain stage to open up what looks like a defensible lead, despite the challenger's advantage in the upcoming time trial. The maillot jaune thanks his team for helping him out, while the challenger knows he's alone, as always, unaided by his Belgian mates. Ah, but teams mean nothing in the final contest. The similarities get pretty strained from there, but we could be looking at the closest Tour in history, or something similar.
3. Plans. Nothing defines this race better than CSC's team tactics. Starting with the Pyrenees, CSC have harassed the peloton into a state of constant chaos, exerting control of the race to the exclusion of the world's best non-Danish teams. It wasn't always clear what they had in mind, and it's possible they weren't fully certain until the race hit the Alpe today. But it appears that they laid low through the Massif Central, even acting weak at times -- remember Jens! and Cancellara dropping back early on the climbs? Once it came time to go, they began working the front and setting up Frank Schleck as the leader. Frank isn't really a high Alps ace or time trialist, so it's likely he was always a distraction from Sastre... who continued to wait and mind his energy reserves, all the way to the final ascent. Once they got there and Sastre flew away, the rest of the team took turns starting or following moves, thwarting any meaningful counterattack as well as any rhythm that Evans might have had on the climb. It's all so perfect, you have to wonder: did Andy drop time on purpose, so he could play domestique without being shadowed? Did Sastre come back for bottles today as a way of fooling other DSs that they were riding for Frank? Maybe, or perhaps they were simply lucky at how things fell into place.
I grew up in New England, rooting for the Celtics as well as some other pretty sad-sack teams. The Red Sox, for example, devised an organizational plan for the first time in their 99-year history in 2002... and have two rings to show for it. The Patriots were even more chaotic... until the Belichick era began, resulting in the sports blueprint for long-range planning and unimaginable success. Even the Celtics, who used to have a plan, lost their way, came up with a new plan to accumulate talented teenagers until something magical happened. When that went nowhere, they embarked on a risky strategy to add two top veterans, even trading a top draft choice for Ray Allen solely in the hopes that doing so would spring the Garnett trade. And when that plan worked, they were smoking victory cigars within 10 months. CSC had a plan all along, it seems. As a result, they have as good a chance to win the Tour as was ever possible, given their roster.
4. Take Back the Tour. The Versus theme of reclaiming the Tour from its run of scandal was starting to ring pretty hollow a week ago. The Saunier Duval miasma was threatening once again to overshadow the race. But the Tour caught the cheaters in time, before they graduated from sideshow to main attraction (unlike last year). This left the race in the hands of what appears to be a fairly clean peloton, racing with panache but also credibility.
5. The Future. I probably shouldn't even start with this... but is anyone else salivating (figuratively) over Andy Schleck vs. Alberto Contador, 2009?