If the story of the first half of this year’s Tour de France was that French television car, the story of the second half has been one of daring, courage, and strength. In the process the maillot jaune has passed between three riders on three consecutive days, finally settling on the shoulders of Cadel Evans ahead of today’s final stage - leaving him in position to become the first Australian to win the race.
It all kicked off on the second day in the Alps on stage 18, and the 100th anniversary of the Tour’s first visit to those mountains, with an audacious, but carefully planned, escape from the peleton by
Belgian Luxembourg rider Andy Schleck – who, along with his brother Frank, was one of the pre-race favourites.
Andy Schleck started the stage 2min 37 seconds behind the leader, Thomas Voeckler – who had held the maillot jaune since the incident with the French television car on stage 9.
With 60km to go, and on the second of three big climbs of the day, Andy Schleck launched his attack. Crucially, there was no reaction from the other team leaders.
Schleck had two team-mates ahead on the road from an earlier break-away to assist, although one was only able to provide a brief respite on that second climb. The other was picked up on the descent and helped Andy Schleck drive away from the peleton across the valley floor and up the slopes of the Col du Lautaret.
Schleck built a lead of over 4 minutes with only 10 km left. The pack, led by Cadel Evans, began the chase in earnest. At the base of the final climb, up to the highest finish in Tour history, 2,645metres up on top of the Col du Galibier, Schleck’s lead was down to 3 and a half minutes with around 7km to go.
Here’s the final moments of that stage with commentary by ITV4′s superb Paul Sherwin and Phil Ligget. From SBS Tour de France on YouTube
Voeckler may have survived that one, but he couldn’t hold his lead on the next stage, 19, which finished at the top of l’Alpe d’Huez. Another audacious early attack, this time by last year’s winner Alberto Contador, almost succeeded. The stage was eventually won by Frenchman Pierre Rolland, France’s first stage victory in this year’s Tour. But Andy Schleck, who had ridden away with Contador, took the maillot jaune for the penultimate stage ahead of his brother Frank. Cadel Evans, who again had led the chase by the peleton, after a mechanical failure dropped him from the Contador break-away group, was in third – 57 seconds back.
On the individual 42.5km time-trial, stage 20, Andy Shleck was clearly showing the effects of the previous two days efforts in the Alps. Cadel Evans, twice the mountain biking world champion, finished second to German time-trial specialist Tony Martin, by just 7 seconds. Andy Shleck was over 2 minutes back and Evans started today’s final stage with an unassailable lead of 1 min 34 seconds.
On the Champs-Élysées today the Manx missile, Mark Cavendish, took the victory for the third year in a row – his fifth stage win this year and his 20th overall. He also won the points competition, the green jersey, for the first time – the first time a UK rider has taken that prize.
Cadel Evans finished comfortably in the peleton to win his first, and Australia’s first, Tour de France. At 34 years-old he’s the oldest winner in over 70 years.
Andy Schleck finished second in the general classification for the third time.
It’s been a great Tour to watch.
Here’s the Guardian’s A-Z of the 2011 Tour de France.
Adds ITV4′s excellent coverage ended with an end credits reliving the 2011 Tour de France. With some suitable musical accompaniment. Enjoy.