The 2011 Tour may not have been that close in terms of time – Cadel Evans’ winning margin being 1’34’’ – but it will surely go down as one of the best editions of the Tour in recent years. There were countless heroes, twists and turns and moments of triumph and drama.
For all the close attentions of Frank Schleck, Thomas Voeckler, Alberto Contador (the defending champion having a disappointing Tour by his own high standards) and Samuel Sanchez, the final portion of the Tour was ultimately the stage for Cadel Evans and Andy Schleck to battle it out; both had finished second twice, but it was Schleck who made it a somewhat unlucky hat-trick.
Andy Schleck did not lose this Tour in the stage 20 time-trial; Cadel Evans put in a sensational performance that blew away everyone bar Tony Martin. Schleck, not a fan of time-trials, actually managed a good performance. If Schleck does have any regrets, they will instead dwell on stage 16, where he lost 1’09’’ to Evans after letting the Australian slip away on the Col de Manse and subsequent descent.
But it would be harsh on Evans, and Schleck, to say that the Luxembourger had lost the Tour; rather the Evans, the oldest post-war winner of the race (at age 34) and the first from the Southern Hemisphere, deservedly won the contest between two outstanding cyclists. His team, BMC, kept him safe and in the hunt in the first couple of weeks; Evans then took control for himself by leading the chase against Andy Schleck up the Galibier (stage 18) while those around him faltered, refused to let go of the Schleck brothers up Alpe d’Huez (stage 19) and then snatched the yellow jersey by demolishing his rivals in that time-trial.
He was only in the position to do so because of those previous two mountain stages. Lesser men would have cracked under the pressure exerted by the Schlecks, but not Evans. Andy Schleck’s wonderfully daring attack on stage 18 was only matched in its brilliance by Evans’ single-handed drive to claw precious time back (which also kept French hero Thomas Voeckler in yellow for his tenth, and last, day).
This year has seen Evans at his most aggressive. In previous years he was accused of being too defensive, always more likely to react than attack. He got the balance right this year, showing both superb defensive riding to keep the Schlecks tied down, or at least within reach, in the mountains (allowing for his time-trial masterclass) and attacking vitality, especially in his win at Mur de Bretagne (stage 4).
Ultimately it was that stunning drive up the Galibier that saved him around two minutes on Schleck and almost certainly the Tour. Had he hesitated, or looked for others for lead, as he has done in previous Tours, it would be Schleck on the top step of the Paris podium. In the event, Evans took charge and gave his all on that lung-busting climb, so he took the top prize. The Schlecks were quick to praise Evans, tweeting their congratulations – the best man won, they admitted, and they were content to be together on the podium with him.
The Schleck-led Leopard-Trek team will be back. Andy is eight years Evans’ junior, and one would be extremely foolhardy to rule him out of winning the Tour next year or the years that follow. Both Schlecks will continue to work on their time-trialling, always an Achilles’ Heel of theirs, and hope that next year luck and form will be on their side; there is no doubt that Evans benefited from a great slice of luck, albeit luck that he earned through determined and intelligent riding.
So, as the remaining riders rolled onto the Champs-Elysees, the Evans-Schleck-Schleck podium (the first time two brothers have made the top three) was all but confirmed, as were the climber, youth and team classifications. Spaniard Samuel Sanchez won the polka-dot jersey as best climber; coming in sixth overall and taking first on Luz Ardiden (stage 12) and second on Alpe d’Huez, Sanchez won the competition in style. The best young rider category was won by Pierre Rolland, the Frenchman powering to a home victory on Alpe d’Huez and giving the French hope that they might have a genuine overall contender once more.
The best team was indeed the best team, Garmin-Cervelo winning the team time-trial and delivering stage wins for Tyler Farrar and Thor Hushovd (twice). Hushovd also held onto the yellow jersey for a week, providing pride for Norway when the country most needs it. The Norwegian Edvald Boasson-Hagen of Team Sky also won two stages, putting a smile on the faces of his countrymen and also his team-mates, the latter hit by the withdrawal of Bradley Wiggins in the first week.
Team Sky were a more convincing prospect in their second year at the race. But British headlines were dominated by one man. Mark Cavendish won five stages, the last of those on the Champs Elysees (for his third consecutive victory there) confirming his place as the best sprinter, winning the green points jersey by a comfortable margin in the end. That despite only surviving stages 18 and 19 because more than 20% of the riders finished after the theoretical cut-off point. Philippe Gilbert was a serious early threat to Cavendish and Jose Joaquin Rojas was ever-present near the top of the standings, but Cavendish was simply better than anyone in the sprints. His pace is phenomenal, but he also benefits immensely from his HTC-Highroad team’s efforts to deliver him to the final few hundred metres. He might want to consider their work when thinking about which team to ride for next year.
So many stories have come from this year’s Tour it would be impossible to mention them all. How will it be remembered? Cadel Evans and Mark Cavendish scream out loudest, the Schlecks gave it their all, as did Thomas Voeckler and Thor Hushovd, but Alberto Contador looked highly vulnerable for the first time in this great competition. There has (so far) been only one positive drugs test (for Alexandr Kolobnev), so let’s hope it stays that way, and so this will have been the cleanest Tour in recent memory.
Next year will be very open. Can Cadel defend his title? Will one of the Schlecks get their breakthrough win at last? Will Contador return with a vengeance? Or will a new contender rise to the occasion? Bring it on.