If the allegations made by Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton and the ongoing federal investigation of Lance Armstrong have soured you on cycling; if the still-unresolved positive drug test of Alberto Contador has stomped on your velo-buzz, guess what? It might be time to give this sport another chance.
That was the takeaway from this, the most thrilling, the most satisfying, the most plausible and
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
"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
It was the opposite of the controlled, calculated,
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
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
-- 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
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.