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The Gang Arrives in Paris

Cavendish in green (at last), Evans in yellow (at last)

[From the Guardian]

The Tour came to Paris today, marking the end of summer for some of us. A bit of a downer. But before the mourning, there was a race to watch.

It figured to be a day for the sprinters, and so it was. The peloton arrived in Paris with Team BMC and their man in yellow, Cadel Evans, in the lead. Then as they began their eight laps around the Champs Elysées, Place de la Concorde, and the Louvre, ceremony ended and the day’s racing began. Early in the third lap, near the Arc de Triomphe, there would be the day’s intermediate sprint. Mark Cavendish was in green as overall points leader, but Jose Rojas had a chance to pass him if Rojas could earn enough points at this intermediate point and the finish. It was clear that Cavendish and Team HTC meant business when they ushered him toward the front of the peloton as the intermediate line neared. He sprinted through in first, with Rojas two positions back.

It was now time for the inevitable breakaway. Six men went, opening up a gap of 30 or 35 seconds. They still had a gap near 30 seconds when the peloton crossed the finish line (about 200 meters west of the Place de la Concorde on the Champs Elysées heading toward the Arc de Triomphe) with two laps or just over 12k to go. A lap later, a gap remained, maybe on the order of 15 seconds. It was difficult to imagine the teams of the star sprinters not closing that gap down, but would they do so in time to set up leadouts for their men?

Down they went toward the Arc. Back they came toward the Place de la Concorde. Finally, as the breakaway fragmented, the peloton picked some of them up. Into Place de la Concorde, past the Obélisque, east along the Seine with the turn under the Louvre approaching. One breakaway rider remained, a member of HTC. Would HTC hold up the leadout for Cavendish to let him go for the stage win?

No. Just before the turn north and ride down through the tunnel, he slowed up to let the peloton by. At that point, with 1.3k left, HTC was in control. Up out of the tunnel they came, left they went, westward on the Rue de Rivoli. Tony Martin, having switched hats from yesterday’s time trial star to humble support rider, led the way, with Matt Goss, Mark Renshaw, and Cavendish behind. No other team seemed to be as well organized or mounting a serious challenge. Under the 1k banner they went, off dropped Martin, into Place de la Concorde they rode one last time, off went Goss, and then as they turned onto the Champs Elysées for the final straightaway, still no one seemed to be challenging as leadout expert Renshaw led Cavendish.

Suddenly, Cavendish made his famous move. Edvald Boasson Hagen tried to chase him down. No way. Cavendish won his fifth stage of the tour. Boasson Hagen, winner of two stages this year, was in second. Close behind came Cavendish’s two other principal sprint challengers, each the winner of one stage this year, André Greipel in third and Tyler Farrar in fourth. Everyone else zipped by, Team BMC surrounded Cadel Evans and congratulated him, Cavendish hugged Renshaw, and the Tour was done, except for the award ceremony.

Cavendish’s stage win wrapped up his campaign for the green jersey. It also represented his third consecutive stage win in Paris and twentieth stage win over the last four Tours. And he’s only 26. How many more years can he stay at this level? There’s such a fine line between domination and racking up lots of 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place finishes. Just ask Tyler Farrar. How many stage wins would he have if Cavendish weren’t on the scene? Will he improve to the point where the two trade stage wins? Keep in mind that Farrar edged Cavendish last September on the final stage of the Vuelta, the ride into Madrid (although Cavendish rode the last 3k with mechanical problems). And Greipel outsprinted Cavendish once in this Tour, due perhaps to Renshaw’s absence at the finish as leadout, as a result of which Cavendish had to make his move too early.

In any case, if Cavendish can stay at this level, he has the possibility of moving into historic territory. He is tied for 6th in most career Tour stage wins at 20, with Lance Armstrong and André Darrigade in 4th at 22, André Leducq in 3rd at 25, then Bernard Hinault at 28 and Eddy Merckx at 34. Two more years at this level and Cavendish will move ahead of Hinault into 2nd. But each of these wins is bitterly battled for, and it’s as easy to imagine Cavendish having reached his peak now as it is to imagine him blasting past Merckx.

Richard Williams, the Guardian’s chief sports writer, has a short note on Cavendish in which he observes that

Cavendish is a fountain of emotions, keen to express his joy in his success but always giving equal weight to his gratitude towards the HTC‑Highroad team-mates who negotiate the position from which he produces the final burst of deadly acceleration.

The first word he spoke into a microphone after the victory – “Finally!” – reflected the frustrations of the previous two years, when he came close to capturing the maillot vert. “We’ve worked so hard for it,” he said. “Today we put the whole team on the front for the last five kilometres. It was a block headwind finish, so you’ve got to be tough.”

In fact at one point during the three-week race he had to be tougher than anyone knew. The later Alpine stages had been demanding, but worse were the Pyrénées in the second week. “The Alps are not so steep and the roads are better. I’m usually OK there. But the Pyrénées are hard. And I got sick in the first week. You can’t say anything at the time because your competitors will take advantage of it, but I had a really bad stomach, an intestinal problem. I was really, really low during the stages in the Massif Central and the Pyrénées, but as usual the team was incredible.”

Williams also had the most marvelous line about Cadel Evans. For years, the post-race interviews of him on Versus have felt tortured. He’s had such bad luck, near misses. He always sounds in mental pain as well as physical. Williams concisely reviews Evans’ path to victory, then notes that Evans “sometimes gives the misleading impression of being inarticulate in three languages.” Just so.

I should finish the quote from Williams, who goes on to write:

but on Saturday night in Grenoble, when he knew he had won, he paid tribute not only to his team but to his former coach, Aldo Sassi, who died of brain cancer last December, aged 51.

“He believed in me, often more than I did myself,” Evans said. “He said to me last year: ‘I’m sure you can win a grand tour and I hope it’s the Tour de France. And then you’ll be the most complete rider of your generation.'”

The most complete rider? I don’t know. But today is not the day to argue. He was surely the most complete rider of this Tour, and a most worthy champion.

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