Tour delivers thrilling, credible race

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That was the takeaway from this, the most thrilling, the most satisfying, the most plausible and human Tour in memory. By human I mean that the riding, while often daring and aggressive, was plausible. It wasn't slow. It just wasn't ... superhuman.

It ended, of course, with Cadel Evans on the top step of the podium on the Champs Elysees, remembering just in time to remove his BMC ball cap while fellow Aussie and Paris-based pop singer Tina Arena belted out a terrific rendition of Advance Australia Fair. His win marks the first time in the Tour's 108-year history that a rider from the Southern Hemisphere has won this race. Handed a microphone, Evans spoke in better-than-passable French, thanking the race organizers, fans, and the host nation, describing his experience as "incroyable." Switching to English, he graciously saluted the riders flanking him, Andy and Frank Schleck of Leopard-Trek, who finished second and third, respectively.

"I think it's been a beautiful race," he said.

He wasn't just being polite. Above and beyond the crumbling castles and gorgeous countryside, the majestic Alps and steeper, greener Pyrenees, this iteration of the Grand Boucle had a special appeal, epitomized by an instant-classic of an attack launched by Andy Schleck in Stage 18. Needing to make up time lost two days earlier, the string bean Luxembourger shot from the peloton halfway up the Col d'Izoard, some 37 miles and two massive climbs from the finish. It was impetuous, old school -- and dangerous. Andy might have spent his legs, been overtaken and lost the Tour that day. But it worked. Having lost 69 seconds to Evans in Stage 16, Schleck pulled back 2:15 from the Aussie on the road to the Galibier.

Emboldened, possibly, by Schleck's bravado, Contador threw a Hail Mary of his own the following day, dropping the hammer on the bunch a mere nine miles from the start village of Modane. Channeling Tom Cruise's Joel Goodson from Risky Business for the second straight day ("Sometimes ya just gotta say, 'What the f---!'"), Andy Schleck jumped with him. Missing the move due to a mechanical problem, Evans was forced to chase for the next 50 miles. Astonishingly, he reeled in his rivals at the base of the Alpe d'Huez, on whose upper switchbacks he unleashed several attacks of his own.

It was the opposite of the controlled, calculated, defensive racing we've grown accustomed to seeing. Here were the biggest names in the sport, in the middle of the ring, launching haymakers. It was disorderly, unpredictable -- the most entertaining two days of racing I've ever seen. It was as if the skirmishing at the end of Stages 16 and 17 had "unblocked the peloton," wrote Edward Pickering in Cycle Sport. Rather than remain in the slipstreams of teammates -- "racing by proxy," he called it -- "the favorites have spent the last four days fighting each other, with increasing intensity, and fewer inhibitions. As a result, the 2011 Tour has suddenly elevated itself from a good, close race into one of the all-time classics."

Pickering also noted that the surprise winner of Stage 19, Pierre Rolland of Team Europcar, had taken 41:20 to race up the Alpe -- several minutes slower than the climb was routinely raced in the 1990s and 2000s. (The late Italian climbing specialist, Marco Pantani, flew up its 21 switchbacks in 37½ minutes in '97 -- before the sport started testing for EPO).

The signs were unmistakable, and all over this Tour: The racing is cleaner. As exercise physiologists Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas wrote in Sunday's New York Times, cycling "appears to have turned the corner and is regaining some credibility, thanks to the anti-doping efforts of a new generation of riders, managers and fans." The onerous biological passport to which pro cyclists are subjected; the constant drug testing -- announced and surprise, in competition and out -- is having an effect. It's much riskier to cheat now.

Cycling isn't immaculate: Russian rider Alexander Kolobnev of Katusha quit the race after testing positive for a banned masking agent. But it's cleaner. That can't be proved, of course, and when it comes to this sport and drugs, The Other Shoe is never far from dropping. But there were very encouraging signs throughout this race:

-- Team Garmin-Cervelo, one of the teams racing under the banner of clean riding, which subjects its athletes to a testing regimen above and beyond that imposed by the passport, had never won a stage in its three previous Tours. This year Jonathan Vaughters' argyle warriors won four stages, including the team time trial. Taking two of those stage victories was Thor Hushovd, who spent a week in the yellow jersey.

-- Hushovd yielded the maillot jaune to Europcar's Thomas Voeckler, who is more of an all-around rider than a climbing specialist. Yet Voeckler made a surprising number of selections in the high mountains, clinging tenaciously to the leaders, and hanging on to the jersey for 10 days. His showing, UCI president Pat McQuaid told The Associated Press, "suggested the sport is becoming cleaner."

-- Voeckler wasn't the only one the race favorites couldn't drop. Where Pantani and Armstrong and, more recently, Contador, became accustomed to shedding all but an elite few climbers in the cols, the selections on the upper reaches of the Alps and Pyrenees in this Tour had a far more democratic flavor. Until the final week of racing, when Schleck and Contador were forced to attack, they'd be riding along with a dozen, 15, 19 guys. Apparently, that's what clean racing looks like.

Embarrassed by the Festina affair of 1998, the French cycling federation pioneered the kind of comprehensive, longitudinal testing that is now commonplace. As a result, some believe, the host nation hasn't had a lot of success in its own bike race. But there was Voeckler's faithful lieutenant, 24-year-old Pierre Rolland, given license to ride his own race at the bottom of the Alpe d'Huez, overtaking Contador, then dropping the Spaniard like a bundle of newspapers a mile and a half from the summit. In the moment before he crossed the line, Rolland's face was a mixture of joy and incredulity. To me, it was cause for hope.