Monday July 28th, 2008

Okay, withdrawal time. A dramatic, transformative Tour de France has been decided by one of the narrowest margins in the 105-year history of the race. Cycling fans who've been following the Tour for the last three weeks must now grapple with a void in their lives, a Bobke-less universe.

Kudos to Carlos Sastre, the 33-year-old Spaniard who attacked with such panache on the Alpe d'Huez last Wednesday, relieving teammate Frank Schleck of the yellow jersey, then upended conventional wisdom three days later to clinch his first-ever grand tour. Sastre did this by holding off Australia's Cadel Evans in Saturday's 53km time trial. A climbing specialist accustomed to hemorrhaging time in the Race of Truth, Sastre had reportedly been working with aerodynamics specialists from Ferrari's Formula One team. Evans, for his part, had been deep-frying his legs, countering multiple attacks in the Alps without the assistance of his Silence-Lotto teammates, who essentially didn't show in the high mountains. (Paging Yaroslav Popovych ...) Evans went into the final TT trailing Sastre by 1:34. Despite his reputation as a far superior time trialist, the Aussie was only able to pull back 29 seconds, thus settling for second for the second-straight year.

Still, what a difference a year made. Sorry to keep beating this bongo, but, to me, the most important aspect of Sastre's win was that he rode for one of the three teams in the race willing to spend a small fortune on independent, third-party drug testing. (The other two, as I believe I have mentioned in every single post on this year's Tour, are the American squads Columbia and Garmin-Chipotle). The significance of this, after the bottom-scraping humiliations of the '07 Tour, is tough to overstate, although I think you'll agree I've been giving it my best shot.

I wrote on the eve of this Tour that "with 180 coreurs taking the start in Brest, there are bound to be a few cheats. But their day seems to be passing."

And so there were. The fourth rider to get the thumb was a Kazakh named Dmitri Fofonev, whose name it was fun to hear Phil Liggett pronounce, and in whose blood was found traces of Heptaminol, which dilates the blood vessels. Dmitri 'fessed right up, and will now take a two-year sabbatical from a sport that is, in fits and starts, getting better.

Time to hand out a few superlatives as we look back at this year's Tour.

Most encouraging sign: The parity and lack of daylight between the main threats to the general classification. Once the ethically challenged members of Saunier-Duval exited the race, no one rider was dramatically better than the rest. Guys were suffering deeply, getting spit out the back, missing the time cut. The racing was human, not superhuman -- a very good sign.

Most karmically satisfying moment: Stefan Schumacher clips the rear wheel of Kim Kirchen within sight of the finish line on the climb to Super-Besse. The German bites the dust, loses half a minute and the yellow jersey -- to Kirchen, of Team Columbia.

Serious cycling fans recall how, two years ago, Schumacher won the Tour of Benelux after hooking George Hincapie's handlebars in the closing meters of the final stage. Hincapie, who'd been in the lead, crashed, and Schumacher was given the overall win. His whining protests after Stage 6 ("It's not fair!") earned him little sympathy.

Most jaw-dropping performance: Columbia's 23-year-old Mark Cavendish sprinted his way to four stage wins before dropping out of the race with a week to go, baked by the Alps. "He's still a kid, you know," team owner Bob Stapleton told SI via phone. "He doesn't have the endurance range he needs to develop over the next few years. But he's a hell of a rider."

While Cavendish is not a guy with "particularly great physiological test results," says Stapleton, he does have, in addition to his warp speed, "a real tactical instinct that you just don't normally see in young riders. He's at the stage tactically at 23 where an Eric Zabel or Mario Cipollini were in their late 20s.

Most prophetic comment: Stapleton, on the subject of the selflessness of his team, said, "Bernie Eisel, Marcus Burghardt -- if those guys are in a break, they have a very good chance to win a stage themselves." Five days later, Burghardt won Columbia's fifth stage of the Tour, outdueling Carlos Barredo, who then pitched a fit and threw all the toys out of his pram. Five stage wins + four days in yellow for Kirchen = sensational Tour for Columbia.

Biggest Revelation (aside from Cavendish): Garmin-Chipotle team leader Christian Vandevelde established himself as the man this squad will ride for in next year's Tour, as well. Until this season a kind of super-domestique, paid to not ride for himself, the 32-year-old Lemont, Ill., native placed fourth in the final time trial, moving up to fifth in the GC. He'd spent the previous 19 stages proving that he could do more than race against the clock. When the Tour hit the Pyrenees, Vandevelde made every elite selection, often attacking the leaders when he found the pace un-ambitious.

He lost touch with the leaders grinding up the Cime de la Bonnette-Restefond, summitting 35 seconds after they did, which is not big deal, really. But his crash on the descent cost him another two minutes and, in all probability, knocked him off the podium. As he told Versus' Robbie Ventura, he's already looking forward to next year.

Costliest crash: CVV's; see above.

Scariest crash: Oscar Pereiro, winner of the '06 Tour following the disqualification of Floyd Landis, collided with another rider and flew "four or five meters," according to his director, midway through the 15th stage. Pereiro sailed over a guardrail to the pavement below, breaking his shoulder in several places.

Crash most beloved by Versus producers: A tie between Pereiro's and these four:

• Stage 16: After summiting the Bonnette first, John-Lee Augustyn of Barloworld took a bad line around a bend and went barreling off the road and into space -- no guardrail -- tumbling and skidding 50 yards down a steep, rocky scree. His bike fell even further: He had to wait five minutes by the roadside for a new one, foiling his chances at a stage win.

• Stage 13: Sven Krauss of Gerolsteiner collides with a traffic sign, sending his carbon-fiber bike pinwheeling 10 feet in the air, splitting it cleanly in two.

• Stage 7: Lilian Jegou, a young French rider awarded the "most combative" rider of Stage 1, engages in unsuccessful combat with a roadside tree, fracturing his wrist and forcing him to abandon.

• Stage 15: You know how the main bunch splits in half when it gets to a roundabout? On this occasion, at least 10 riders on both sides of the rain-slick roundabout ate it, eliciting these words from Phil Liggett: "Oh my goodness me -- on both sides of the road!"

Most arid humor: Asked to comment on the fact that six of his riders went down in that spill, Garmen director Jonathan Vaughters remarked, over the vehicle's In-Car Cam, "Well, we crash as a team."

Most aesthetically pleasing accessory: Yellow handlebar tape on CSC's Cervelo's for Sunday's ceremonial ride into Paris, then up and down the Champs Elysees

Most aesthetically displeasing accessory: The sub-skin suit hydration bladder sported by Vandevelde during the TT. It made him look like a dromedary.

Biggest revelation (TV side): Nothing against Al Trautwig, whose work I admire, and who stole all his scenes in Cool Runnings, but I think the broadcast was improved by Craig Hummer's presence on the set. While a few caviling nits in the blogosphere took their shots at him, I appreciated his solid grasp of the sport, and the easy chemistry he enjoyed with color man Bob Roll.

Most incisive Bobke-ism: I'll admit, I didn't hear his every utterance, but this is at least representative of the goods Bob Roll is bringing to the set every day. On the subject of the multiple feed-zone crashes at this Tour -- the ex-7-Eleven rider noted that, because their favorite sports are soccer and cycling, "Europeans are not that good with their hand-to-eye coordination."

Most expensive leak: Check out this item from the bottom of the "Jury report" following Stage 16 (courtesy of VeloNews): "Pineau (Bouyges-Telecom) fined 60 euros for inappropriate urination."

Enough already. I've come up with a Post-Tour plan to fill the void in my life. I'm headed out on a ride.

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