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24 hours from the Tour de France

The title of the Gene Pitney song is actually 24 Hours from Tulsa, but what the hell? For both die-hard and occasional cycling fans, the biggest day in the sport’s cycling calendar is now just one day away. Tomorrow, in Liege in Belgium, the 2012 edition of the Tour de France begins. Three weeks of hell. Two wheels. One amazing race.

Will Sky’s Bradley Wiggins live up to his billing as the bookies’ favourite and become the first British rider to wear the coveted yellow jersey in Paris (let alone the first to finish on the Paris podium)? Or will Australia’s Cadel Evans be able to defend the title he won with such battling panache last July?

Will the combination of Mark Cavendish‘s preparations for the Olympic road race and Sky’s focus on Wiggins compromise his effectiveness as he seeks to add to his 20 Tour stage wins in defence of his green jersey? Or will we see a new sprint king crowned in Peter Sagan or perhaps Andre Greipel, Matt Goss or Mark Renshaw, all former teammates of Cavendish at HTC-Highroad?

Who will delight us with their daring attacks on the steep climbs and equally precipitous descents of the Alps and Pyrenees? And who will provide us with the drama and romance which featured protagonists such as French media darling Thomas Voeckler and Johnny ‘Barbed Wire’ Hoogerland?

In previous years I have provided stage-by-stage recaps and analysis here. However, all cycling coverage has now transferred over to our new dedicated site velovoices.com, where you will find full previews, daily recaps, stats and analysis throughout the next three weeks. Just click on the banner above and come and join us!

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Tour de France 2011 review: Talking points

In the final part of my post-Tour de France review, now the dust has settled here are a few observations looking back on the best race in recent history, with some analysis as to what made it so good and looking forward to what could be done to make things even better for the 2012 edition. And some random thoughts about a few of the key themes that stick in mind – just because.

1. A truly great parcours

After last year’s race, which celebrated 100 years of racing in the Pyrenees and included both the hills of the Ardennes classics and the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix, I lavished praise on Christian Prudhomme and his team for devising a spectacular and varied parcours which tested the riders across many different aspects of their craft. If anything, this year’s route was even better, giving us a race of three distinct parts. First there was the rolling profile of the first week, which contained no major climbs but a variety of flat and hilly finishes which brought the best out of Philippe Gilbert and forced the top contenders to come out to play rather than hide anonymously in the bunch. The second week saw Thomas Voeckler grittily defend the yellow jersey with echoes of 2004 as he tracked the favourites up to Plateau de Beille. And the final week produced day after day of attacking cycling, whether it was descending or climbing, or even the first or last climb of the day.

Looks can be deceiving - the 2011 Tour de France was no easy ride for the peloton (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

Andy Schleck complained about “mortally dangerous” downhill finishes and that fans do not want to see the race decided on descents. He was only partially right. No one wants to see riders put at unnecessary risk – the memory of Wouter Weylandt’s fatal crash at the Giro remains fresh in the memory – but any descent carries inherent risks, just as a bunch sprint does, and a descent is generally only as dangerous as the riders are willing to make it. It is in the nature of professional cyclists to push themselves to their physical and mental limits, and no matter how safe the organisers make a descent there will always be someone who is willing to take a risk beyond the limits of their own talent. And most fans don’t care where the race is decided, as long as the racing is honest, exciting and favours the best man on the day. This year, the descents provided some of the best racing spectacle of the entire Tour, from Thor Hushovd‘s daredevil riding to claim his two stage wins, to the critical Evans/Contador/Sánchez break into Gap which cost Schleck more than a minute and fuelled his ire. Deal with it, Andy. This year’s race provided opportunities for descenders as well as climbers and time-trialists, and the combination of handling skills and bravery required to do the former well are important parts of a rider’s armoury in which Schleck was found lacking – and Cadel Evans, crucially, was not.

All this made for some fantastically varied racing, with different riders in the ascendancy on different stages. Compare that to this year’s Giro, which was packed with one epic climb after another, but too often featured the same names and faces at the front day after day in the mountains. Chapeau, Monsieur Prudhomme. Chapeau.

2. Jersey rule changes

During the race, I wrote about my thoughts on the changes to the scoring system for both the green jersey and the polka dot jersey classifications, and pronounced the former a big success while reckoning the latter was a qualified success. With the benefit of hindsight at the end of the race, I stand by my assessment of the points competition and, although I still have some reservations about the King of the Mountains, it was definitely an improvement.

The race for the green jersey gave us a three-cornered battle between the best pure sprinter in the world (Mark Cavendish), the punchy classics specialist (Philippe Gilbert) and, somewhere in between, a less rapid bit extremely dogged sprinter (José Joaquín Rojas). Cavendish rightfully won the jersey courtesy of his five stage wins, but was made to work in the intermediate sprints for the first time, and then forced to sweat until Paris after being deducted points for missing the time limit on the Galibier. Rojas never won a stage, but his doggedness and greater ability on the climbs kept him in contention throughout. And Gilbert powered through on the uphill stages and constantly went on the attack in search of points. It made for a fascinating competition, and the decision to have only one intermediate sprint and then award a larger number of points for it was an inspired one, giving us a race-within-a-race virtually every day – as opposed to the old system, where the day’s break would always mop up the meagre points on offer.

The changes in the mountains classification lent greater weight to the big summit finishes, meaning that the jersey would be decided by someone who was prominent on the key climbing days rather than a tactician who mopped up points on lesser days and won the jersey by stealth. Samuel Sánchez had a win and two seconds on the four Pyrenean and Alpine summit finishes. There was no argument that he was a worthy winner, and even if the polka dot jersey is still something of a consolation prize and a poor relation to its yellow and green cousins, at least it was won in a deserving and visible fashion.

3. Is the Giro/Tour double now impossible?

I commented after last year’s Tour on the fact that those top riders who had ridden in both the Giro and the Tour all had much poorer results in the latter race, and that was even more the case this year. It is now virtually impossible for a cyclist to shake off the fatigue of a tough Giro in time to be 100% for the Tour, even assuming that he is capable of managing to hit peak form twice in quick succession. Alberto Contador trounced his rivals at the Giro, but looked heavy-legged for much of the Tour and could only finish fifth – this from the man who had won his previous six Grand Tour participations. Contador has already stated that he will not ride the Giro again.

In all, only two of the top 35 finishers at the Tour also competed at the Giro. AG2R’s Hubert Dupont finished an anonymous 22nd, having come 12th in Italy.

Increasingly now, it is a case of either/or. The serious Tour contenders now sit out the Giro, which weakens the field at the earlier race. Cadel Evans skipped it this year, having attempted both last year, and it seemed to pay off handsomely as the resultant freshness in his legs allowed him to lead two massive chases in the Alps which ultimately provided the springboard to his eventual win.

It is increasingly an issue, though. The Giro and the Tour are both wonderful races, but with all the top riders now splitting their efforts it is a problem which is to the detriment of both races.

4. Why so many crashes?

Particularly in the opening week, there was a larger than usual number of crashes, particularly ones involving top GC contenders. Bradley Wiggins, Alexandre Vinokourov, Jurgen Van Den Broeck, Janez Brajkovič and Chris Horner all crashed out before the first rest day, with Andreas Klöden following later. There were a number of factors at play here. The stage one accident which delayed Contador by over a minute put everyone on edge and desperate to ride on the front, and a combination of narrow roads and windy conditions contributed to several of the crashes. Damp roads towards the end of the first week didn’t help either. And neither did camera bikes and media cars, which brought down Nicki Sørensen, Juan Antonio Flecha and, most dramatically of all, Johnny Hoogerland.

The fact is crashes will always happen in a giant race such as the Tour de France. And the ones involving the intervention of other vehicles were certainly avoidable. But arguably the nerve-inducing effect of Contador’s initial crash had the biggest impact of all. Thankfully at least there was no repeat of Weylandt’s fatal Giro crash or the one involving a police outrider which killed a female spectator two years ago.

Riders, motorbikes and cars alike were in the wars a bit too often in this year's race (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

5. Will the French ever win the Tour again?

Everyone got very excited over Thomas Voeckler‘s ten days in yellow, but brave though his defence of the jersey was it should be remembered that he only earned it by being in a successful breakaway rather than taking time in a direct head-to-head. The reality is that Voeckler, for all his undoubted talents, does not have the right set of skills to be a genuine Tour contender. Nonetheless, with five riders in the final top 15, there is reason for optimism that one of Pierre Rolland, Jérôme Coppel or Arnold Jeannesson – all 25 or under – can develop into a real force in the next couple of years. If it’s going to be any of them, my money’s on Rolland.

Voeckler is certainly capable of another top ten finish, but riding for the GC does not play to his strengths. Give me the swashbuckling, attacking, never-say-die rider we are accustomed to seeing rather than one who is content to follow wheels to finish in the relative anonymity of ninth or tenth place.

6. A race of champions

Helped by a fantastic parcours and the evenness of the competition, the 2011 Tour provided an even greater quota of champions and heroes than the usual. The four jersey winners – Evans, Cavendish, Sánchez and Rolland – require little explanation. But you can add to those Andy Schleck and Contador for their long-range mountain attacks (even though Andy loses points for his tentative attacking in the Pyrenees and constant whining whenever the stage finished with a descent). Gilbert was the hero of the first week, Voeckler the second. Thor Hushovd won two unlikely stages courtesy of his superior descending skills. Edvald Boasson Hagen and Jelle Vanendert emerged from the shadow of injured team leaders to take maiden stage wins. Johnny Hoogerland became the spiritual successor to Jens Voigt as the Tour’s tough guy. And Voigt himself provided his own typical Jens Voigt moment, crashing heavily before remounting to explode the peloton on a subsequent climb.

In truth, though, all 167 finishers were heroes one and all.

More agony for Andy Schleck - runner-up for the third year in a row (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

7. Will Andy Schleck ever win the Tour?

He has some way to go before he matches the record of Joop Zoetemelk (six) and Jan Ullrich (five), but Andy Schleck already holds the dubious honour of being the only man to finish as runner-up in three consecutive years. He may yet be awarded the 2010 edition retrospectively, depending on the outcome of Contador’s twice-delayed hearing at CAS, but will he ever win the Tour on the road?

I am beginning to doubt it. His physical talent is prodigious. No one, not even Contador, can sustain an attack on a climb for as long as Schleck can, and as he showed with his attack more than 60km out en route to his solo win atop the Galibier, he has stamina too. But, even in an era where the pendulum is swinging away from time trial specialists, his weakness against the clock and his dislike for descending and cold, wet conditions are well-documented and considerable handicaps. Against the likes of Contador and Evans, he effectively starts every Grand Tour with a 1½-2 minute disadvantage, and in the modern sport where even the three-week Grand Tours are now won by seconds rather than minutes, that is too big a head start to give his rivals.

Even more worryingly though, is the feeling that he lacks the sheer bloody-mindedness of a great champion. Evans has it. Contador too, and before him Lance Armstrong, Bernard Hinault and all the other great champions. Schleck looks over his shoulder too often, complains too often and seems too content with coming second to suggest he lacks the searing hatred of losing and that crucial all-consuming desire to win at all costs. Cycling’s greatest champions have all been driven by their flaws as much as their strengths. With Andy, I get the feeling he is restrained by them, and I genuinely fear whether we will ever see this talented and likeable young man wear the yellow jersey in Paris.

Links: Tour de France official websiteSteephill.tv

Race review

Stage-by-stage

In numbers

Race analysis

Is the new green jersey points system working?

Week 1 winners & losers

Who will win the polka dot jersey?

Week 2 winners & losers

Is Thomas Voecker a genuine contender for 2012?

Stage recaps

Stage 1: Gilbert climbs to victory as Contador faces uphill battle

Stage 2: Hushovd takes yellow as Evans misses out by one second

Stage 3: Farrar’s green jersey challenge is born on the 4th of July

Stage 4: Evans wins slug-fest but Hushovd clings on to yellow

Stage 5: Cannonball Cav conquers crash carnage

Stage 6: Boasson Hagen wins battle of the strong men

Stage 7: Cavendish wins again as the Sky falls in for Wiggins

Stage 8: Costa’s winning break as Contador continues to look vulnerable

Stage 9: Voeckler leads Tour of attrition as peloton licks its wounds

Stage 10: Greipel the Gorilla gets the monkey off his back

Stage 11: No raining on Cavendish’s parade

Stage 12: Sánchez storms to Bastille Day victory

Stage 13: Thor thunders to victory, leaving Roy tilting at windmills

Stage 14: Vanendert wins as main contenders are happy to man-mark

Stage 15: HTC-Highroad express train delivers 4×4 Cavendish to victory

Stage 16: Norewgian one-two leaves Andy Schleck minding the Gap

Stage 17: Boasson Hagen wins again, Schleck complains again

Stage 18: Schleck one-two knocks out Contador, Evans and Voeckler battle on

Stage 19: Rolland wins at Alpe d’Huez on a day of true champions

Stage 20: Evans triumphs in moment of truth, Schleck becomes the new ‘eternal second’

Stage 21: Five-star Cavendish leaves rivals green with envy

Tour de France 2011 review: In numbers

Like many other great sporting events, the Tour de France can boast an overwhelming wealth of statistics concerning its riders, stages and general history, all of which help tell the story of each year’s race. Here are a few of the key numbers which help define the last three weeks of consistently exciting racing, and put the achievements of the race’s many heroes into context.

The basics

3,430.5 – Total race distance (in kilometres).

167 – Number of finishers, out of 198 starters.

86:12:22 – Aggregate time of the winner, Cadel Evans.

39.8 – In kph, Evans’ average speed.

The battle for the yellow jersey

Evans' final margin of victory reflected the close nature of the race

1:34 – Cadel Evans‘ winning margin over Andy Schleck – only the second time in the last six years the Tour has been decided by one minute or more.

5 – Wearers of the yellow jersey in this year’s race (Philippe Gilbert, Thor Hushovd, Thomas Voeckler, Andy Schleck, Cadel Evans).

1 – Number of days on which Evans wore the yellow jersey – the final stage in Paris.

1 – Stages won by Evans (stage four).

10 – Days spent by Thomas Voeckler in the yellow jersey, the same number he managed in 2004.

3 – Andy Schleck was overall runner-up for the third year running. He has yet to win the Tour.

12 – Evans‘ win made Australia the 12th country to produce a Tour winner – but the first from the southern hemisphere.

6 – Alberto Contador‘s fifth-place finish ended his run of winning the last six Grand Tours he has entered, including his last three Tours de France.

5 – Number of French riders who finished in the top 15.

The race for the other jerseys

Rojas finished second in the green jersey competition despite not winning a stage

3 – Only three men wore the green jersey this year (Philippe Gilbert, Rojas, Cavendish).

7 – By contrast, seven men wore the polka dot jersey for leading the mountains classification (Gilbert, Evans, Johnny Hoogerland, Tejay Van Garderen, Samuel Sánchez, Jérémy Roy and Jelle Vanendert).

6 – Six riders wore the white jersey as the leader of the youth (under-25s) classification (Geraint Thomas, Robert Gesink, Arnold Jeannesson, Rigoberto Urán, Rein Taaramae, Pierre Rolland).

0 – Stage wins for José Joaquín Rojas, who finished as runner-up in the green jersey competition to Mark Cavendish.

Stage winners

White jersey winner Rolland was this year's only French stage winner

1 – Stages won by French riders at this year’s Tour, after winning six last year. Pierre Rolland won stage 19 at Alpe d’Huez.

5 – Number of stages won by Mark Cavendish, taking his total in the past four years to 20.

3 – Three men were multiple stage winners this year: Cavendish (five), Thor Hushovd and Edvald Boasson Hagen (two each).

1 – Tyler Farrar won stage three, becoming the first American rider to win a Tour stage on the 4th of July.

3 – Cavendish won stage 11 in Lavaur. It is the third consecutive year in which he has won the 11th stage at the Tour.

2 – Cavendish is one of only two men to have won four or more stages in four consecutive years at the Tour. The other is Eddy Merckx.

11 – Only 11 of the 22 competing teams won stages. HTC-Highroad recorded six, more than any other team.

4 – Stage wins by the two Norwegian riders in the race – two each by Thor Hushovd and Edvald Boasson Hagen.

3 – Cavendish‘s victory in Paris marked the third consecutive time he has won the final stage on the Champs-Élysées. He was already the only man in Tour history to achieve this feat two years in a row.

And finally …

3:57:43 – Time gap between Cadel Evans and last-placed finisher Fabio Sabatini, the lanterne rouge.

(Some statistics courtesy of Opta Sports and Infostrada.)

Links: Tour de France official websiteSteephill.tv

Race review

Stage-by-stage

 

Talking points

Race analysis

Is the new green jersey points system working?

Week 1 winners & losers

Who will win the polka dot jersey?

Week 2 winners & losers

Is Thomas Voecker a genuine contender for 2012?

Stage recaps

Stage 1: Gilbert climbs to victory as Contador faces uphill battle

Stage 2: Hushovd takes yellow as Evans misses out by one second

Stage 3: Farrar’s green jersey challenge is born on the 4th of July

Stage 4: Evans wins slug-fest but Hushovd clings on to yellow

Stage 5: Cannonball Cav conquers crash carnage

Stage 6: Boasson Hagen wins battle of the strong men

Stage 7: Cavendish wins again as the Sky falls in for Wiggins

Stage 8: Costa’s winning break as Contador continues to look vulnerable

Stage 9: Voeckler leads Tour of attrition as peloton licks its wounds

Stage 10: Greipel the Gorilla gets the monkey off his back

Stage 11: No raining on Cavendish’s parade

Stage 12: Sánchez storms to Bastille Day victory

Stage 13: Thor thunders to victory, leaving Roy tilting at windmills

Stage 14: Vanendert wins as main contenders are happy to man-mark

Stage 15: HTC-Highroad express train delivers 4×4 Cavendish to victory

Stage 16: Norewgian one-two leaves Andy Schleck minding the Gap

Stage 17: Boasson Hagen wins again, Schleck complains again

Stage 18: Schleck one-two knocks out Contador, Evans and Voeckler battle on

Stage 19: Rolland wins at Alpe d’Huez on a day of true champions

Stage 20: Evans triumphs in moment of truth, Schleck becomes the new ‘eternal second’

Stage 21: Five-star Cavendish leaves rivals green with envy

The week in numbers: w/e 24/7/11

Pietersen's 202no put England in a strong position against India

6 – In scoring 202 not out in England’s first innings in the first Test against India, Kevin Pietersen became the sixth batsman to pass 1,000 Test runs at Lord’s, joining Geoffrey Boycott, David Gower, Graham Gooch, Alec Stewart and Andrew Strauss.

1 – Swimmer Keri-Anne Payne became the first British athlete to qualify for next summer’s Olympic Games in London by defending her world 10km title in Shanghai, winning by nearly two seconds.

0 – Number of matches won by Paraguay in reaching the Copa America final. They drew all three group games, and then won both their quarter and semi-final matches on penalties. However, Uruguay beat them 3-0 in the final.

5 – WBA light-welterweight champion Amir Khan outclassed IBF champion Zab Judah, knocking him out in the fifth round of their unification fight in Las Vegas on Saturday night.

Gervinho was quick to open his Arsenal account (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

2 – In his first start for the club, Gervinho scored twice in the first 16 minutes as Arsenal won 2-1 in a friendly match at Cologne.

196Chris Taylor equalled his best ever score of 196 as Gloucestershire beat Kent by an innings and 142 runs in their County Championship match at Cheltenham.

11 – Nottinghamshire’s Samit Patel took 4/43 and 7/68 in their draw against Hampshire at the Rose Bowl, giving him a match return of 11/111.

1 – Derbyshire’s Mark Turner 5/32 in the first innings of their drawn match with Northamptonshire. It was his first five-for since he made his first-class debut in 2005.

2Lewis Hamilton won the German Grand Prix ahead of Fernando Alonso, his second victory of the season, to become only the second multiple race winner this year. (Defending world champion Sebastian Vettel has six wins.)

1Vettel finished fourth, the first time in ten races this season he has not finished in the top two.

The Tour de France in numbers

1:34Cadel Evans‘ winning margin over Andy Schleck – only the second time in the last six years the Tour has been decided by one minute or more.

Voeckler had an outstanding Tour, spending ten days in the yellow jersey

12Evans‘ win made Australia the 12th country to produce a Tour winner – but the first from the southern hemisphere.

10 – Number of days in the yellow jersey for Thomas Voeckler. In 2004, he also held the maillot jaune for ten days.

1 – Number of days in the yellow jersey for Evans.

6Alberto Contador‘s fifth-place finish ended his run of winning the last six Grand Tours he has entered, including his last three Tours de France.

6 – Stage wins for HTC-Highroad, more than any other team (five by Mark Cavendish, one by Tony Martin).

3Cavendish‘s victory in Paris marked the third consecutive time he has won the final stage on the Champs-Élysées. He was already the only man in Tour history to achieve this feat two years in a row.

20 – Cavendish’s win was the 20th stage of his Tour career (in only his fifth participation), moving him up to joint-sixth on the all-time winners’ list. Eddy Merckx leads with 34.

11 – Only 11 out of the 22 teams won a stage.

1Pierre Rolland was the only French stage winner (at Alpe d’Huez on stage 19), versus six last year.

167 – Number of finishers, out of 198 starters.

3:57:43 – Time gap between winner Cadel Evans and last-placed finisher Fabio Sabatini, the lanterne rouge.

(Some statistics courtesy of Opta Sports, The Times and Infostrada.)

Tour de France stage 21: Five-star Cavendish leaves rivals green with envy

Stage 21: Créteil to Paris Champs-Élysées, 95km

It’s the final day of the Tour de France. The sun is shining on the Champs-Élysées. And the diminutive figure of Mark Cavendish – the Manx Missile – blasts off the front of the peloton to claim victory on the most prestigious sprint stage of all. The year? Take your pick. In 2009 and 2010 he achieved this feat in the colours of HTC-Columbia (as the HTC-Highroad team used to be called). This year, however, he won his fifth stage – his 20th in four years – in the jersey he has always coveted, the green jersey of the winner of the points classification.

Meanwhile Cadel Evans enjoyed the sunny day he had wished for yesterday as he rolled to the finish in the yellow jersey of the overall winner – the first Tour champion ever from the southern hemisphere. To the title of world champion in 2009 he can now finally add the appellation ‘Tour de France winner’.

Cadel Evans rides into Paris as the 2011 Tour de France winner (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

HTC-Highroad put on a tactical masterclass

With all the other jerseys decided, today’s stage was all about the final victory and the fate of the green jersey. HTC-Highroad’s Mark Cavendish started the day with a slender 15-point lead over Movistar’s José Joaquín Rojas, despite having won four stages to the Spaniard’s none. A fifth win would guarantee him his first green jersey no matter what Rojas did, but equally he could not afford to slip up either.

The stage started with the usual processional run in to Paris to allow plenty of time for the traditional photo opportunities of the jersey holders riding together and of yellow jersey Cadel Evans sipping on a glass of celebratory champagne. As is customary, his BMC team were afforded the honour of leading the peloton on to the Champs-Élysées for the first of eight 6km circuits.

Almost immediately, Sky’s Ben Swift accelerated off the front of the bunch, and he was soon joined by Jérémy Roy (FDJ), Sergio Paulinho (RadioShack), Kristjan Koren (Liquigas-Cannondale) and Cavendish’s teammate Lars Bak. Bak’s presence in the break meant HTC were not obliged to lead the chase, allowing them to sit behind and force other teams to expend energy at the front.

The intermediate sprint came early in the third lap on the uphill stretch near the top of the avenue. After the leading sextet had gone through, HTC came to the front and Cavendish easily beat Rojas to claim seventh, with Mark Renshaw nudging the Spaniard down to ninth. This extended Cavendish’s advantage to 17 points, meaning he now needed only to finish third, and if Rojas finished second then seventh place would be sufficient for the Manxman. Immediately after the sprint, Cavendish had to stop to change bikes, but he quickly regained the peloton.

The break extended its advantage to 43 seconds, but once the sprinters’ teams started to work seriously the gap soon tumbled. The catch was inevitable, and all but Swift and Bak sat up just after the start of the final lap, to be absorbed back into the bunch. Swift was also soon caught, but Bak remained resolutely out in front by seven seconds.

HTC-Highroad then came to the front of the peloton – not to lead the chase of their own man, but to disrupt it. Sure enough Bak’s lead drifted back out to 13 seconds, again forcing other teams to commit themselves to the chase to catch him with 2km remaining. This left the HTC train free to move up and assume control in their own time, which they duly did just before passing under the 1km banner.

The rest was inevitable, and a routine we have seen executed so perfectly so many times before. Four white HTC jerseys with the green of Cavendish tucked in at the back of the line. First the raw power of Bernhard Eisel, HTC’s road captain and Cavendish’s roommate, setting a rapid tempo that opponents struggle just to follow. Then the equally powerful Tony Martin, winner of yesterday’s time trial, took the lead up to 450m out. Matt Goss, this year’s Milan-San Remo winner and one of the fastest sprinters in the world in his own right, led through the final bend at 350m onto the Champs-Élysées to set up Mark Renshaw, Cavendish’s most trusted lead-out man, to open up the sprint.

Cavendish held his burst until the final 175 metres because of the headwind, but when he kicked there was no catching him. Sky’s Edvald Boasson Hagen closed to a bike length, but Cav applied his second kick and extended his advantage before crossing the line to a length-and-a-quarter. André Greipel was third. Rojas, who had been hovering close to Cavendish’s shoulder entering the final half-kilometre, sat up and finished 21st.

Cavendish celebrates his fifth win at this Tour, his 20th overall and - at last - his first green jersey (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

Five stage wins this year, 20 in the last four years, and at last the green jersey for the first time. Cavendish becomes the first British winner of the green jersey and only the second British jersey winner ever. (Robert Millar won the polka dot jersey in 1984.) The next target for Cavendish is André Darrigade, the only sprinter with more stage wins (22, over 12 years). That, and a second green jersey next year.

An emotional Cavendish was close to tears after finally realising a lifelong dream:

I finally got it, but it didn’t come easy. I really had to fight for it all the way to the last finish line and I’m very tired, but it was worth all that effort.

I had eight fantastic team-mates around me all the way, they kept working with me, I was close to getting it for the last two years and now it’s finally here.

I’m so happy, it’s incredible. It’s a great way to finish the Tour and a super, super emotional day.

New champion Evans spoke of being inspired by watching Miguel Indurain as a teenager and his pride in representing his nation:

As a young child we aspire to a lot of things in life, and watching the Tour de France in 1991 and seeing Indurain tear everyone to pieces planted a small seed in my head that continued to grow.

It’s been years of hard work and there were a lot of moments in these three weeks where our Tour was lost, but to get here safely with all my skin – just that alone is a quest in itself.

But to be here wearing the yellow jersey — for my team, my country, a group of people around me — it leaves me a little lost for words. This win is for everyone in our country.

The other prize-winners

In addition to the yellow and green jerseys, the other key prizes had already been settled in advance of today’s result.

The polka dot jersey for the King of the Mountains went to Euskaltel-Euskadi’s Samuel Sánchez. The Spaniard was the most consistent performer on the Tour’s four big summit finishes, winning at Luz-Ardiden and coming second on both Plateau de Beille and Alpe d’Huez.

The youth classification for the best rider aged 25 or under was won by Pierre Rolland. The 24-year old Europcar grimpeur, who first came to attention by winning the mountains classification at the Dauphiné three years ago, finally blossomed on the sport’s biggest stage, never leaving the side of Thomas Voeckler in the mountains and riding to a fantastic victory on the fabled 21 hairpin bends of Alpe d’Huez. He finished an impressive 11th overall, 10:43 behind Evans.

Garmin-Cervélo not only claimed their first ever Tour de France victory in the stage two team time trial, but added three further wins courtesy of Thor Hushovd (two) and Tyler Farrar, and placed Tom Danielson ninth overall on his Tour debut. Their consistency earned them the best team prize, calculated from the aggregate time of a team’s first three riders on each stage.

Finally, FDJ’s Jérémy Roy was awarded the overall combativity prize as the rider judged to have been the most attacking over the three weeks of the race. He won the daily equivalent of this award twice, and was memorably denied a solo victory when he was caught and passed by Hushovd 2km from the finish in Lourdes on stage 13. It was fitting that he should also in today’s break.

A race of true champions

The Tour de France has always provided a spectacular tableau for telling great stories but this year perhaps more than any other has been a race of true champions, each of whom has contributed towards the narrative of the most exciting, most unpredictable Tour I can remember watching. Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador‘s audacious long-range attacks in the Alps. The devastating speed of Mark Cavendish and his HTC-Highroad train. Crashes galore, including the one which created a new cult hero in Vacansoleil’s Johnny Hoogerland. The mighty Thor Hushovd winning not once but twice in the mountains. His compatriot Edvald Boasson Hagen‘s breakthrough wins. The attacking verve of Philippe Gilbert, who single-handedly animated the first half of the race. The never-say-die pluck of Thomas Voeckler, who discovered new abilities he never realised he had in defending the maillot jaune for ten thrilling days, in which we all shared in the agony of every pedal-stroke. The magnificent Pierre Rolland, whose reward for shepherding Voeckler through the mountains was a famous victory at Alpe d’Huez. And so many more, right down to Liquigas’s Fabio Sabatini, the 167th and last finisher in the race, and therefore the lanterne rouge.

I’m sure I have missed out several others worthy of mention. I do not do so deliberately. They are all champions in my book.

But the tale of the 2011 Tour de France starts and ends with its new champion Cadel Evans. The winner on the Mûr-de-Bretagne, the way he twice dragged chasing groups up the Galibier marked him out as a man with both the legs and heart of a worthy champion. The two-time runner up who finally made good through bloody-minded determination and no small amount of skill. The ugly duckling who, over the course of three thrilling weeks in July, became a swan.

Chapeau, et vive Le Tour!

Look out for more posts taking a look back at the 2011 Tour de France over the next few days.

Stage 21 result:

1. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad) 2:27:02

2. Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky) same time

3. André Greipel (Omega Pharma-Lotto) s/t

4. Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Cervélo) s/t

5. Fabian Cancellara (Leopard-Trek) s/t

General classification:

1. Cadel Evans (BMC) 86:12:22

2. Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek) +1:34

3. Fränk Schleck (Leopard-Trek) +2:30

4. Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) +3:20

5. Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Sungard) +3:57

6. Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) +4:55

7. Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD) +6:05

8. Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale) +7:23

9. Tom Danielson (Garmin-Cervélo) +8:15

10. Jean-Christope Péraud (AG2R La Mondiale) +1:11

Points classification:

1. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad) 334 pts

2. José Joaquín Rojas (Movistar) 272

3. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 236

4. Cadel Evans (BMC) 208

5. Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo) 195

Mountains classification:

1. Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) 108 pts

2. Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek) 98

3. Jelle Vanendert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 74

4. Cadel Evans (BMC) 58

5. Fränk Schleck (Leopard-Trek) 56

Links: Tour de France official websiteSteephill.tv

Race analysis

Is the new green jersey points system working?

Week 1 winners & losers

Who will win the polka dot jersey?

Week 2 winners & losers

Is Thomas Voecker a genuine contender for 2012?

Stage recaps

Stage 1: Gilbert climbs to victory as Contador faces uphill battle

Stage 2: Hushovd takes yellow as Evans misses out by one second

Stage 3: Farrar’s green jersey challenge is born on the 4th of July

Stage 4: Evans wins slug-fest but Hushovd clings on to yellow

Stage 5: Cannonball Cav conquers crash carnage

Stage 6: Boasson Hagen wins battle of the strong men

Stage 7: Cavendish wins again as the Sky falls in for Wiggins

Stage 8: Costa’s winning break as Contador continues to look vulnerable

Stage 9: Voeckler leads Tour of attrition as peloton licks its wounds

Stage 10: Greipel the Gorilla gets the monkey off his back

Stage 11: No raining on Cavendish’s parade

Stage 12: Sánchez storms to Bastille Day victory

Stage 13: Thor thunders to victory, leaving Roy tilting at windmills

Stage 14: Vanendert wins as main contenders are happy to man-mark

Stage 15: HTC-Highroad express train delivers 4×4 Cavendish to victory

Stage 16: Norewgian one-two leaves Andy Schleck minding the Gap

Stage 17: Boasson Hagen wins again, Schleck complains again

Stage 18: Schleck one-two knocks out Contador, Evans and Voeckler battle on

Stage 19: Rolland wins at Alpe d’Huez on a day of true champions

Stage 20: Evans triumphs in moment of truth, Schleck becomes the new ‘eternal second’

Tour de France preview

The Tour in numbers

Teams and sponsors (part 1)

Teams and sponsors (part 2)

Official Tour teaser video

Ten riders to watch

Six key stages

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