Stage 20: Longjumeau > Paris Champs-Élysées (102.5 km)
It is an established tradition that the wearer of the yellow jersey after the penultimate stage of the Tour de France should remain unchallenged during the final, largely ceremonial stage to Paris – a practice which was continued today as Alberto Contador cruised to his third victory.
The peloton heads up the Champs-Élysées on the final stage of the 2010 Tour (image courtesy of Graham Watson)
More recently, another equally reliable tradition seems to have been established: every time Mark Cavendish contests a bunch sprint, he wins practically unchallenged. Or at least it seems that way, as this afternoon the Manx Missile secured his fifth win of this year’s Tour. As on Friday, he was so far ahead of his pursuers that the race commissaires would have been justified in awarding a one-second time gap between him and the rest of the field.
My memory may be mistaken, but I can only remember one Tour sprint that Cavendish has contested in the past three years which he has failed to win – stage four this year. In that time, he has won a phenomenal 15 stages, only seven fewer than Lance Armstrong managed in a Tour career spanning 13 races which came to a quiet end as he crossed the finish line in the middle of the peloton, just another number among the 170 finishers.
As has become the practised custom, we were treated to the usual array of photo opportunities as the peloton slowly made its way through the outskirts of Paris. Alberto Contador, the yellow jersey, sipping champagne and smiling to the cameras while holding three fingers aloft to signify each of his Tour wins. The four individual jersey wearers – Contador in yellow, Schleck in white as the best young rider, Alessandro Petacchi in the green jersey of the points competition and Anthony Charteau in the polka dot jersey of the King of the Mountains – riding side-by-side and arm-in-arm. And generally, lots of light-hearted banter for the cameras and the millions of TV viewers at home.
As the team of the yellow jersey, Astana had the privilege of leading the race on to the Champs-Élysées – another tradition – before what passes for serious racing on the final day of the Tour commenced. Breakaways on the Champs-Élysées are generally trickier to reel in than normal. Everyone’s legs are weary and yet the pace is higher, and the rough cobbles tend to thin out the field. And while 11 masochistic souls volunteered to give it a go for a shot at final stage glory, they were in reality little more than the hare to the peloton’s greyhounds.
With HTC-Columbia and Lampre - the teams of Cavendish and Petacchi – doing the heavy lifting in the chase, the catch was completed with 6 km to go, and then – well, you know how this pans out. Columbia kept the pace high and ensured Cavendish was able to start the final kilometre in the first ten positions and without being boxed in. Cavendish sat on Petacchi’s wheel while Cervelo drove at the front around the final bend, with their man Thor Hushovd second wheel, Petacchi third wheel and Cavendish fourth. Petacchi sprinted for home with around 250 metres left, Hushovd had nothing left to offer, and as Petacchi went one way around the Norwegian, Cavendish went the other, put on the afterburners, and was already soft-pedalling 30 metres from the line.
In truth, the result was never in doubt. Petacchi was satisfied to finish second, more than enough to guarantee him the green jersey. And Hushovd cut a sorry figure, his campaign in tatters, as his Cervelo team drove him to prime position, only for him to find, yet again, that there was nothing left in the tank when he really needed it.
As ever, Cavendish was quick to praise his team for his win:
Bernie Eisel and Tony Martin were with me at the finish. Bernie took me to the tunnel the last time and Tony did a really good job to drop me on the wheel of Petacchi in the last kilometre. Once I was on Petacchi’s wheel, I knew I could win the stage. We came out of that last corner and I just jumped.
Cavendish under-plays his part in the equation with characteristic modesty, but the fact is he possesses both the fastest finish in the peloton by a distance and an innate sense of position and timing to get himself on the right wheel at the right time. All this makes his team’s job considerably easier, even without his main lead-out man Mark Renshaw and Adam Hansen, another key teammate. All they have needed to do is to chase down breaks and then work to deposit Cavendish in approximately the right spot, and the Manx Missile does the rest.
He was disappointed not to have won the green jersey, although you have to feel that his five stage wins constitute a decent consolation prize:
I had some bad luck in the first days and was out of the running but the team fought back, did our best and I lost it by 11 points. But we won five stages and we’ve got to be happy with this year’s Tour. The team rode incredibly strongly throughout the early days and I was the weak link at the end of it. But they never gave up faith and they continued to lead me out and it takes a special group of guys to do that. It’s not just the riders but the soigneurs, the management, the mechanics – everyone in the team. I’m so lucky to part of a group of people who give 100 per cent whatever the outcome. It was just a case of trying to make amends. Finally I did and we just got on a roll after that. Obviously if you win, you get confidence. If you get confidence, you win.
So Cavendish finishes a Tour which looked to be heading for disaster after his dispiriting defeat by Petacchi on stage four with five wins, more than all the other sprinters combined. The scariest thing for his rivals? He is still only 25.
His performances over the past three weeks should be more than enough to earn him a place in the final shortlist of 10 for BBC Sports Personality of the Year, but nowhere near enough to win him a place in the top three. It is ridiculous that his success – he has been far and away the best in the world at what he does for the past three years – is not more widely recognised by the British public. Do something about it and ensure he gets the votes he deserves on the night.
Mark Cavendish wins stage 20, his fifth of the 2010 Tour and 15th overall (image courtesy of Graham Watson)
Contador finished safely in the middle of the pack, meaning that he has now completed a hat-trick of Tour wins, although in doing so he became only the seventh man to win the Tour without winning a stage. He expressed his relief afterwards:
It is a Tour in which I had a lot of pressure, especially physically as I was not at my best level. It took a lot of confidence to face difficult situations. For example, everyone said I had already won the Tour after the stage to the Tourmalet. But we saw yesterday, in the race against the clock, that it was not fully played out. Today is therefore a great relief for me, it is a moment that I feel like I’ve been liberated from all the pressure.
The three wins are all very different. The first, in 2007, had something special, precisely because that was the first. Last year, the context [sharing a team with Lance Armstrong] was difficult and this made it difficult. And this year I have had difficult moments, but I could count on a strong team. I realize that each year I gain in experience. I know better manage a team throughout the race.
Now I am happy to enjoy this victory and I’ll take a good vacation.
For all the controversy over ‘Chain-gate’ and the time he lost on the cobbles of stage three, Contador rode a superbly-judged race, albeit a far more defensive one than his previous two wins. And both on the Tourmalet and in yesterday’s time trial, when Schleck asked the awkward questions of him, he always found an answer. Schleck would also have been a deserving champion (and, outside of Spain, a more popular one too), but there is no disputing the immense pressure Contador has been under throughout the Tour, and the immense scrutiny he has been under during its final week. He has come through it all by the skin of his teeth, but he is a deserving winner.
And while Contador’s reputation took a battering after the way he took advantage of Schleck’s misfortune on stage 15, I believe it is not quite as black-and-white as any many people. Yes, I think he made a panicky error by not waiting for Schleck after he had unshipped his chain which was unwise with hindsight, but any crime he committed was then exacerbated by the way he obfuscated the truth with a declaration of ignorance which was patently untrue. But it has to be remembered that he went some way to repairing the damage with his actions in conceding the stage win on the Tourmalet, even if from a racing perspective the gesture cost him nothing on the clock.
Interestingly, this is what Toby Watson, a member of Garmin-Transitions‘ support team with no axe to grind one way or another, had to say about Contador on the evening of the Tourmalet stage:
Just saw Contador spend 15 minutes signing jerseys and having photos with fans in the hotel. True champion.
It does not make up for or excuse what happened on Monday, but it does show a different side to Contador than the pantomime villain he has frequently been portrayed as in the media.
Lampre's Adriano Malori, the 2010 lanterne rouge
To sum up the other noteworthy prizes, RadioShack won the team prize, and Adriano Malori was the lanterne rouge, the last man in the general classification. (The origins of the term go back to the red lantern which would be hung from the back of a railway train, which enabled the conductor to easily check that none of the carriages had become uncoupled. So now you know!)
That’s almost – but not quite – my lot for the 2010 Tour. I will be posting a short series of Tour reviews over the next couple of days, but before I go here are a few final thoughts for you to ponder. Would things have been any different if:
- Fränk Schleck hadn’t been forced out of the race on stage three? Andy aside, he was Saxo Bank‘s best climber, and would have been a potent weapon to use against Contador in the high mountains. (Any time Contador lost due to Fränk’s accident was probably less than the time he might have lost if he had been there to support his brother in the Alps and Pyrenees.)
- Andy Schleck hadn’t dropped (a) his chain on stage 15 or (b) a massive 42 seconds to Contador in the prologue alone?
- Saxo Bank had prioritised Schleck’s needs over Fabian Cancellara in the prologue? He would then have been the penultimate rider in drying conditions, rather than going 22 slots earlier when it was still much wetter.
- Contador had decided to wait for a bike change at the end of stage three, rather than soldier on with a rear wheel problem? He lost 20 seconds because of the incident – had he waited for a team car to arrive, it could have easily been a further minute.
- Mark Cavendish hadn’t had that accident on stage one? Would an early win have ignited a successful green jersey campaign?
- Lance Armstrong’s race hadn’t been scuppered by punctures and accidents in the first week. Would he have finished in the top 10? Probably. Top two? No. But where exactly?
- It had rained on stage three? Would we have been denied the incredible spectacle of the peloton racing over the cobbles?
- Time bonuses still existed for the first three on each stage? Would we have seen more excitement at the end of each day with riders genuinely contesting the finishes?
I’m just saying. It’s the complexity and the unpredictability of this grand old event that makes the Tour de France so special. It’s been wonderful, absorbing, compelling stuff – one of the finest Tours in its recent history. Roll on 2011.
Stage 20 result:
1. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) 2:42:21
2. Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre) same time
3. Julian Dean (Garmin-Transitions) s/t
4. Jurgen Roelandts (Omega Pharma-Lotto) s/t
5. Óscar Freire (Rabobank) s/t
General classification (yellow jersey):
1. Alberto Contador (Astana) 91:58:48
2. Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) +0:39
3. Denis Menchov (Rabobank) +2:01
4. Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) +3:40
5. Jurgen van den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto) +6:54
6. Robert Gesink (Rabobank) +9:31
7. Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Transitions) +10:15
8. Joaquín Rodríquez (Katusha) +11:37
9. Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas-Doimo) +11:54
10. Chris Horner (RadioShack) +12:02
23. Lance Armstrong (RadioShack) +39:20
24. Bradley Wiggins (Sky) +39:24
170. Adriano Malori (Lampre) +4:27:03
Points classification (green jersey):
1. Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre) 243 pts
2. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) 232
3. Thor Hushovd (Cervelo) 222
4. José Joaquín Rojas (Caisse d’Epargne) 179
5. Robbie McEwen (Katusha) 179
Climbers’ classification (polka dot jersey):
1. Anthony Charteau (Bbox Bouygues Telecom) 143 pts
2. Christophe Moreau (Caisse d’Epargne) 128
3. Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) 116
4. Alberto Contador (Astana) 112
5. Damiano Cunego (Lampre) 99