Sports Section bicycling correspondent Jada Yuan grew up watching the Tour de France (or TDF) and hoping one day she, too, would learn to ride a bike. It's never too late, right? Today's installment: The end of the 2010 TDF, a ball of sadness, happiness, and guilt all rolled in one.
In the end, it came down to thirty-nine seconds. Thirty-nine seconds was all it took for Alberto Contador to beat Andy Schleck in the 2010 Tour de France for the glory, the prize money, the endorsements, the party invites, and the yellow jersey that all come with having proven he could ride his bike faster than anyone else for 21 days. Thirty-nine seconds is also exactly the amount of time Contador "stole" from Schleck when Schleck dropped his chain in Stage 15 while wearing the yellow jersey and Contador barged ahead to take the lead for the rest of the Tour. And in the world of what-ifs, had chain-gate never happened, this year's Tour might have ended up a dead tie.
The Tour is based on what actually happened, though, and in actuality, Contador was the faster man. Not by much—this will go down as the second-smallest margin of victory in TDF history—but by enough. Schleck will just have to go home with the white jersey, for the best rider under 25, and the satisfaction of putting a great champion like Contador up against the ropes.
Today's stage, the final ride into Paris, consists of a ride in from Bordeaux and eight loops along the Champs Élysées. Riders competing for the overall title traditionally treat it as a ceremonial affair. (The one very noticeable exception came in 1989, when the last stage was a time trial in which Greg LeMond beat Laurent Fignon for the narrowest victory ever.) But the yellow jersey was still up in the air going into yesterday's individual time trial. The buildup was almost unbearable; after 20 days in the saddle, just eight seconds separated Schleck in second place from Contador in first, and just twenty-one seconds separated Denis Menchov in fourth place from Samuel Sanchez in third. At 32 miles, the route through the vineyards of Bordeaux and surrounding towns was particularly long, forcing every man to ride full-out for over an hour. Starting order was the reverse order of the General Classification (GC) standings, so Fabian Cancellara, the eventual stage winner and undisputed best time trial rider in the world, started near the beginning because he was in 132nd place. He finished the route in 1:00:56, extremely fast, and then went to lunch.
The top ten in the GC didn't start until around 5pm, and by that time, the weather conditions had drastically changed; a massive crosswind was blowing across the final two-thirds of the course, preventing the strongest time trial riders from getting even close to Cancellara's time. Schleck started first, Contador followed three minutes later, the last man on the course, putting Contador at a distinct advantage because he'd be able to know Schleck's time at all of the checks and could adjust his pace accordingly. Despite low expectations for his time trial skills, Schleck went out like a man on a mission and finished the first time check two seconds faster than Contador, which, in virtual terms, cut Contador's overall lead to six seconds. At that point, Contador seemed to go into panic mode and began pulling back the seconds. As the wind picked up, Contador's superior time trial style showed itself. Contador has an incredibly aerodynamic tuck and the same fast cadence used by Lance Armstrong and Miguel Indurain; Schleck has unusually long upper arms and a weird bump on his back, which makes a tight tuck like Contador's very uncomfortable, and the upright stance he uses means he has a lot more surface area hitting the wind. The difference between an aerodynamic and a non-aerodynamic rider is up to a second per kilometer, and that pretty much corresponds to how Contador and Schleck shook out in the final two-thirds of the stage.
Contador crossed the finish line thirty-one seconds ahead of Schleck, and immediately collapsed off his bike, put his head in his hands, and wept. This was by far Contador's most hard-fought Tour victory. "I was really suffering out there," he told the Times after the finish. "I felt like, 'oh my God, this is it.' I remained doubtful until the end, really." He cried again as he mounted the podium for the yellow jersey presentation.
Contador said he'd had a stomachache Friday night and hadn't gotten much sleep going into Saturday's time trial. He'd also been on antibiotics before the start of the Tour, which had messed up his training, and had problems with his allergies during the ride. (Though compared to Schleck's problems—a big crash in Stage 2, losing the help of his brother Frank to a badly broken collarbone in Stage 3, and that incident with the chain—those complaints seem minor.) "I believe that Andy was at the same level as he was last year, but it is me that wasn't at the same level," Contador said. "But it doesn't matter, I guess. What matters is that I won."
Elsewhere on Saturday, Denis Menchov rode a superb time trial. On the road, he passed Jurgen Van Den Broeck, who'd started three minutes ahead of him. In the GC, he catapulted over Sammy Sanchez into third place, turning his 21-second deficit into a lead of 1:39. Riding into Paris today, the race began with traditional tomfoolery. Team Astana pretended to attack Schleck in the neutral zone. Team RadioShack tried to start the day in football-style jerseys all bearing the number "28" for the 28 million people worldwide currently living with cancer, but the international cycling union made them change back into their regular jerseys, delaying the start. They got to wear the "28" jersey when they mounted the podium for finishing as the best team in the Tour, celebrating Lance Armstrong's last day ever in the race he once dominated.
Coming into the Champs Élysées the overall winners had been sorted out. The only things up in the air were who would win the stage and who would win the contest for the green sprinters' jersey. (The flatter areas of most stages are marked off as "sprints" and riders are awarded points according to the order in which they cross the sprint. The rider with the most points at the end of the Tour gets the green jersey.) As expected, the jersey went to Italian Alessandro Petacchi, and Brit Mark Cavendish easily beat the rest of the field for his fifth stage of the 2010 tour. Anthony Charteu won the "King of the Mountains" jersey (based on points accumulated at the tops of certain climbs) and two-time stage winner Sylvain Chavanel was named the most aggressive rider, making this the best Tour for the French in decades.
Contador, meanwhile, crossed the finish line in yellow and raised both hands in the shape of a pistol (his signature; his nickname is "El Pistolero"). "I think what this tour is going to be remembered for is ifs and buts, if Contador had done this, if Andy Schleck's chain hadn't come off, if Mark Cavendish hadn't fallen off in Brussels," said announcer Paul Sherwen. "But," replied announcer Phil Liggett, "that's what sport is, isn't it? Sport is about ifs and buts, if you hadn't fallen down or punctured your tire, you would have won. [But] there are no real excuses. This is the Tour de France."