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Surprise Ending

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Conventional wisdom had it that Cadel Evans would win this Tour. He'd finished a close second last year behind Alberto Contador. With Contador at home this year, there appeared little reason to doubt the chances of Evans. The course, with its long final crono and relatively few mountain-top finishes, looked made to order for the Australian all-arounder. Though hardly a slouch in the mountains, by any means, Evans could count on his ability against the watch to make up the difference on his rivals. Conventional wisdom had it that this Tour was his to lose and the others would have to attack to win.

And in the end, an attack won this Tour. With nothing to lose after a long career of solid placings but few wins, Carlos Sastre rolled the dice and went big on the Alpe d'Huez. Who imagined when he attacked from the first kilometer of the fabled mountain, that he would have two minutes in hand by the finish? Who imagined that the quiet Spaniard could take the jersey by 1.30, and hold it all the way to Paris? On the Alpe, Sastre refused to think of the crono, saying that he wanted to enjoy the moment, a moment that marked the pinnacle of his career. That mentality, the determination to live and ride in the moment, served him well when he set off alone against the watch with the race on the line.

We'll never really know for sure the reasons for Cadel Evans inability to overtake Sastre in a stage that should have suited him so well. Certainly, he has felt the effects of his crash earlier this Tour. And equally certainly, the attacks of the contenders one after the other have left their mark. But it's also clear that the pressure to win bore down ever more relentlessly on the Australian as the Tour wore on. Usually, a relatively calm rider, he lashed out repeatedly at the press, throwing elbows, tossing his helmet out the bus window, and headbutting a camera. The Tour is a pressure cooker for any rider. In the end, for Evans, his head as well as his body betrayed him. In a stage race, there is little space for wasted effort, on or off the bike. This, Sastre understood well, avoiding the nerve-wracking effort of calculating his odds in the final crono. The quiet Spaniard, known for his calmness, his serenity, simply rode his bike. Evans fought himself, fought his bike, fought the expectations, and came up short on the final day, the day that mattered most.

Of course, there is more to the story than the two riders. For cycling is a team sport as we all know so well. Sastre's great advantage was not only his experience, but also his truly formidable team. Bjarne Riis played all his best cards in this Tour, assembling a team who could grasp the race by the throat and give it a hard shake. Jens Voigt restrained in the first week, unleashed in stage after stage of the high mountains. Fabian Cancellara sacrificed his own chances in the final crono, to ride breakaways though the mountains, so he could turn the screws for his climbers. Frank and Andy Schleck, two of the great climbers of their generation, sacrificed their ambitions also. Does anyone doubt the strength of Andy on the Alpe d'Huez? But there he sat, fiddling while Sastre burned up the mountain and rode himself into a dream come true. Meanwhile, Frank watched the yellow jersey slip from his grasp, taken over by his team-mate. This team together won the Tour with their strength, their generosity, and their joint sacrifices. None in the race could match their cumulative strength.

As with any grand tour, we had a few surprises. Berni Kohl, third in the Dauphiné Libéré two years back, had shown flashes of brilliance in the high mountains, but never the potential to win the Tour. He rode himself into the ground these three weeks, collapsing in exhaustion at the summit of the Alpe d'Huez, and again after riding the crono of his life to defend his podium position. He will wear the polka-dots of best climber into Paris, and stand on the final podium with Sastre and Evans, third in the general classification. The likeable Austrian has declared himself a big talent for the future. There will be teams aplenty lined up to sign him on, and surely, we will see more of his exploits in the future. He will be challenged by the likes of Roman Kreuziger who followed his victory in the Tour de Suisse with a strong ride in this Tour, Andy Shleck, who won the white jersey of best young rider, and Vincenzo Nibali, who rode well in the first two weeks, but faltered on the queen stage to Alpe d'Huez, likely worn out by his efforts in the Giro. An exciting future to anticipate.

Christian Vandevelde's fifth place finish must also rank as a surprise at this Tour, and an excellent début for the new American Team Garmin. Vandevelde's highest previous Tour finish was 24th. Like Sastre, Vandevelde had experience on this side, and the liberating position of having nothing to lose. He rode without pressure, and held the wheels of the best in all but one of the high mountain stages. Whether Vandevelde has another ride like that in him remains to be seen, as he is not like Kohl a young up-and-comer. All the same, it was a successful Tour for a team that has only just begun their career at the highest levels of the sport.

Tomorrow, we have the Champs Élysées, the traditional celebration of the race around France. The green jersey is secure with Oscar Freire, who has won the points for the first time in his career. But the prestigious sprint on the Champs remains up for grabs. For the riders of the classification, it is a day for celebrations and, perhaps for some, a few regrets. What a long, happy journey it has been for us, these last three weeks. What better way to spend July than with a wide-open Tour de France like this. Even the traditional sprint stages offered us plenty to watch, with many days the breakaways succeeding. And until today, the final crono, the classification was far from settled. Really, we could not ask for more.