My first awareness of the Tour de France came in 1999, when Lance Armstrong won the Tour for the first time, but it wasn't until 2006 (after I bought my own bike) that I really started paying attention to the intricacies of professional cycling in general, and the Tour de France in particular.
Over the last six Tours, I've seen spectacular sprints and breakaways, mountaintop finishes and timetrials, near scrapes and death-defying crashes. I've seen unimaginable feats of individual strength and unmatched execution of team tactics--not to mention unlikely alliances among disparate riders and teams. Every Tour de France exhibits these elements, and together they conspire to make each Tour memorable in its own right.
But I've never seen a Tour more memorable than this year's. With time trials just inside the first and last day of the Tour--Stage 2 as teams and Stage 20 as individuals, the race route was almost flawless. Every stage mattered, and despite the disappointment of the riders and teams who fell just short, no one should bedgrudge Cadel Evans the yellow jersey in the end. He rode an almost perfect, if understated, Tour.
And, although Evans entered this year's Tour a twice-second place finisher and one of the pre-race favorites, it took him until the penultimate day--in truth, the last possible stage--to break through to the leader's time. Until the individual time trial, Evans suffered through the mountains, at times having to claw himself up the highest and hardest climbs with little help from the peloton. On top of his own mechanical problems, Cadel overcame the heroic efforts of Andy Schleck, the steady challenge of Frank Schleck, the final desparate throes of Alberto Contador, and the unlikely hanging on of Thomas Voeckler.
Voeckler took yellow on the crash-filled ninth stage of the Tour and mounted a fearless defense through the Pyrenees, and finally relinquished the yellow jersey on the last Alpine stage. Had he been able to hold on, it would have been an historically heroic Tour victory--not least because Voeckler would have been the first French champion since 1985. It was Andy Schleck who took the yellow jersey from Voeckler, after two days of attacking strongly in the Alps, and had he been able to outdo himself for one more day in the final time trial, he would have deserved to be wearing yellow today as much as Cadel does. Even thrice-champion Alberto Contador, more than four minutes behind the leader with only two stages left to race--had a chance. And while he rode strongly over the last two mountain stages, and made up some time; but the other contenders were too strong, and Contador was too far behind.
But neither Contador, nor Schleck, nor Voeckler, nor any of the other contenders who entered the final week of the Tour thinking they might be able to snatch a victory, ultimately were able to hold onto the yellow jersey.
The beauty of this year's Tour de France was how many riders were still in with a shout as the world's greatest bike race wound to a close. After three weeks and 2,000 miles of racing, only one rider walks away wearing the yellow jersey--and Cadel Evans is deservedly that man. But for a race that can only have one winner, this Tour had more heroes than any other I can recall.