A Tour de France Where Down Under is Finally Up

Tour de France winner Cadel Evans, center, celebrates with second place Andy Schleck, left, and third place Frank Schleck, right. (Bernard Papon/AP)

The Tour de France win by veteran rider Cadel Evans of Australia, which concluded Sunday with the ceremonial procession into Paris, was a testament to a steady three weeks during which Evans did nothing particularly remarkable nor anything particularly awful.

That’s an accomplishment right there, and it also took a large measure of luck to survive the jittery first week of the Tour without being at the wrong place at the wrong time during a crash-marred beginning of the race.

Evans, 34, is an interesting character whose Tour luck to this point had been spotty. He finished 8th in his first Tour, 4th in his second, then was 2nd two years in a row, 23 seconds behind Alberto Contador in 2007 and 58 seconds behind Carlos Sastre in 2008. After a poor finish in 2009 and a change of teams, Evans was expected to contend last year, but a broken elbow in the middle of the race ended that opportunity.

Despite being a good rider on a good team, Evans was overlooked a little as the 2011 Tour began. It was expected to be another showdown between Contador and Andy Schleck, who had finished 1-2 in the previous two Tours. The drama was certainly there. Contador won in 2010 with help from some dodgy race tactics, attacking on a mountain climb when Schleck slipped his chain. Bad form, but nothing out of the ordinary for Contador.

While Schleck and Contador eyeballed each other through the first half of the race, and while Frenchman Tommy Voeckler went into the yellow jersey, Evans kept grinding away. For the entire race, he was never lower than fourth in the general classification, but even a stage win in Brittany – Evans’ first Tour win in a road stage – didn’t sound any alarms. He kept hanging around and it became a matter of which contender would falter. In his back pocket was the knowledge that the final real stage of the Tour would be an individual time trial, a discipline at which Evans excels, Contador is good and Andy Schleck is not so good.

So, as always, it was left for the mountains to sort things out. That didn’t happen in the Pyrenees as the contenders stayed level through three arduous climbing days. Heading into the Alps, however, the first crack happened and it happened to Schleck.

On stage 16, an unremarkable transitional day into the Alps featuring a downhill finish into Gap, Schleck was unable to stay with the contenders on a moderate Category 2 mountain and lost 1 minute, 9 seconds to Evans.

Two days later, Schleck surprised everyone again. On a massive stage that finished with an uphill climb of the Galibier, Schleck went out on an attack up the flanks of the Col d’Izoard, the second to last mountain of the day. It was so far from the finish, and with a lot of downhill before getting to the Galibier, that the attack didn’t seem either wise or likely to succeed. But Schleck somehow stayed out there, and this time it was Contador who didn’t have the legs. Schleck got 2:15 back on Evans to lead him by 57 seconds in the overall, and put 3:50 into Contador to effectively end the Spaniard’s chance for a win this year.

The last climbing day finished on L’Alpe d’Huez and Contador tried to make a statement. He got away a little bit – a pretty remarkable recovery considering – but only put 34 seconds into the other contenders. Evans and Schleck finished together, setting up the final time trial with Schleck still holding his 57-second lead over Evans.

On the 24-mile loop around Grenoble, with perfect conditions, Evans scorched the field, finishing second only to Tony Martin of Germany, who is among the best in the world. Evans beat Schleck by 2:31 to lift the yellow jersey and wrap up the Tour. Schleck’s brother, Frank, had a better-than-expected time trial and was able to hold third place by a scant 50 seconds over Voeckler, denying France a step on the podium for the 14th straight Tour.

After the stage, Voeckler, wearing the full green kit of his Europcar team, was seen riding back into Grenoble all alone on his bike, lost in what might have been. Voeckler wore the yellow jersey for 10 stages, not surrendering it until the summit of the Alpe. To go from that to fourth place made Voeckler the kind of tragic hero that the French eat up with a cullière à soupe. Give these folks a gallant loser every time. At least they’re used to it.

It wouldn’t be a Tour if there weren’t some talk about doping, so here it is. With Contador finishing fifth, the organizers are spared the possibility that the Court of Arbitration for Sport will decide this year’s podium. Contador is riding while appealing a positive test from the 2010 Tour for traces of clenbuterol, a steroid substance that he claimed was ingested in tainted beef. If CAS sticks to the rules – something the Spanish anti-doping agency didn’t do when it originally cleared Contador – he will forfeit his results beginning with the 2010 Tour. (Which would make Andy Schleck the champion, if that’s any consolation.)

In other years, you might cast a jaundiced eye at Schleck’s amazing comeback on the Galibier after he bonked two days earlier. And the same could be said of Contador’s strong climb up the Alpe a day after cracking. Of course, a real cynic could also say that a more astounding accomplishment is the steady grind that Evans put on the race. He was pretty much the same guy every day, and that’s hard to pull off in a Grand Tour.

So, let’s just let the result sit where it is. It looked fair and, for Evans, it was about time.

It wasn’t a great Tour for Americans, although the Garmin-Cervelo team of Jonathan Vaughters did win the team classification, which is judged by a formula so convoluted that it isn’t worth mentioning. Individually, Tom Danielson and Christian Vande Velde of Garmin finished 9th and 17th, respectively and respectable. The Radio Shack team, still partly owned by Lance Armstrong, had some very bad luck and fell apart in this one. Three of its four possible GC contenders – Chris Horner, Janez Brajkovic and Andreas Kloden – crashed out of the race early and Levi Leipheimer limped home in 32nd place.

Put the 98th Tour in the books, although write the results in pencil at least for a little while. It was memorable because the route was a great one, and not-so-memorable because the winner didn’t announce himself with a signature attack on a classic mountain. Evans hung around, aced the time trial and became the first Southern Hemisphere champion of the Tour de France. That about covers the hemispheres. Now, they have to figure a way to get someone from France again.