Sunday, 24 July 2011

The agony and the ecstasy: 3 weeks of triumph over adversity

198 riders set out 3 weeks ago to tackle all that France (an a touch of Italy) could possibly throw at them as they headed the long way to Paris via the Pyrenees and the Alps. Few could have predicted then who would emerge from that colourful sea of Lycra to be remembered as a hero of the 2011 Tour de France.

Starting in the Vendee, the battle commenced with new rules for the King of the Mountains and the Points competitions. The first week being one for the sprinters, the first of the Tour heroes to emerge was Belgian rider, Phillippe Gilbert, who reigned supreme in all the competitions at the end of the first stage.

His reign in the Golden Fleece lasted just one day as the next hero, Thor Hushovd stepped out of the sprinters territory and into the veritable arena of the strong men. Taking the Maillot Jaune, he was the first of two riders to hold on to it longer than anyone could predict.

Fellow Norwegian, Evald Boasson Hagen showed the peloton that Hushovd wasnt the only Viking to watch out for as he took the first of two wins in the Pyrenees. Their triumphs were to become poignant over the course of the Tour as tragedy struck in their homeland in a way that touched the hearts of many across the world.

As Mark Cavendish returned to the town where he took his first victory, he celebrated the first of five wins for his fourth Tour that would culminate in winning the Maillot Vert; a competition for which the rules were changed as the organisers could not understand how a talented sprinter like the Manx Missile had not won it so far.

On cloud nine at the finish, Cavendish came crashing down at the news that friend, compatriot and former track mate Bradley Wiggins had suffered a crash that had resulted in a fractured clavicle and a premature exit via ambulance. The British GC hopeful had been in tears, unable to stand, never mind get back on his bike, the knowledge that his GC dream was over undoubtedly just as painful as his injury.

Having held the Best Young Riders Maillot Blanc since the start in Vendee, Geraint Thomas was forced to concede his jersey having waited to pace the unfortunate Wiggins back to the main field. The only consolation for Team Sky was to secure it for the team with Uran holding it briefly in the final week.

Hoogerland became a household name with a t-shirt courtesy of following an accident on stage 9 that saw Hoogerland and Flecha struck by a French TV2 car and resulted in a short trip to hospital for Hoogerland who received 33 stitches after landing in a barbed wire fence. His courage and graciousness would become defining points for the Tour and won him a whole stack of fans overnight. Completing the Tour simply because of his fans in spite of the pain personifies what the Tour is about. Triumph over adversity, man over mountain, whatever that mountain may be. Of all the riders, the bloodied pair of Hoogerland and Flecha couldn't have been more relieved that the next day was a repos. The perilous Pyrenees saw several riders suffer over the course of their journey that day. The worst to fair was perhaps Alexander Vinocurov who crashed landing in trees below the road, fracturing his leg and pelvis and forcing him to accept now was the time to retire.

With Voeckler taking the Maillot Jaune from Thor Hushovd, the newly crowned God of Mountains having defended it through the Pyrenees, the French found themselves a new national hero. Battling through the Alps to defend the most coveted Jersey in cycling, exhausting himself past the point where any sane person surely would have given up, he did his duty, sacrificing all he had in order to keep it for as long as possible. Holding the Golden Fleece for 9 days, 1 short of the 10 days he held it for in 2004, he conceded it to Andy Schleck gratefully and perhaps a little willingly in the end, on the Alpe d'Huez where pre-Tour favourite Contador was forced to accept this would not be his year.

Having battled long and hard to take his 3rd Tour victory, the Spaniard suffered set back after set back, never giving up, always giving everything he could. Conceding that Evans and the Brothers Schleck simply had the better legs this year, he may have felt a little of the pressure ease as his rivals showed their strength in the mountains.

As the race headed into the final days, another Frenchman came into the spotlight. Rolland, compatriot and team mate of former Maillot Jaune wearer Voecker, took the Golden Fleece for just 24 hours until Andy Schleck was ready to claim it on stage 19.

By the end of the Alpine stages and with just a Time Trial before the final run into Paris, there were just 57 seconds between Andy Schleck and Cadel Evans. Reminiscent of the famous Le Mond-Fignon head-to-head in 1989, it was to be an epic show down to end an epic Tour.

Finally it came to the rider who had craved it since he had switched from Mountain Biking to Road Racing. Aged 34 the Australian Cadel Evans became the oldest post-war winner of the Tour on an emotional day that saw many entries into the history books. With both Andy and Frank Schleck on the podium, and British sprinter Mark Cavendish taking the Maillot Vert, it was a day of firsts. Ever an emotional finale, there were hugs all round on both the HTC-Highroad and BMC teams.

Ever the ultimate test of will, strength, determination, passion, instinct and survival, the Tour saw 167 riders arrive in Paris on the final day. Fabio Sabatini was this years Latern Rouge, finishing the epic journey from the Vendee to Paris in 90 hours 10 minutes and 5 seconds. From Evans to Sabatini, they are 167 men who gave everything they had, everything they could. Blood, sweat and tears, every last breath, every waking thought. They all had good days, and they all had their bad. Suffering and triumphing, through the agony and the ecstasy they made this Tour what it was. Epic.

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