Alberto Contador’s positive test for Clenbuterol has cast a shadow over the result of this year’s Tour de France but cannot cancel the memories of three weeks of spectacular racing.
The unexpected twists and turns, crashes and suffering, attacks and defeat created a close duel between Contador and Andy Schleck... and some 21 years after the dynamic duel between LeMond and Fignon, the outcome was again only decided in the final time trial.
The sub-plot of Schleck having already made it clear he was leaving Saxo Bank for a new, Luxembourg-based team and Bjarne Riis' secret negotiations with Contador for 2011 only added mystique to this year’s race.
We are far from understanding every detail of what happened on the road between Rotterdam and Paris but here is a look back via some of the best images of the race.
Cancellara in charge
Fabian Cancellara won his fourth Tour de France prologue and again pulled on the first yellow jersey in Rotterdam on July 3. Other riders faltered in the rain or were caught out by going off early, but Spartacus blasted around the 8.9km course in exactly 10 minutes to finish a massive 10 seconds faster than closest rival Tony Martin (HTC-Columbia), with David Millar (Garmin-Transitions) third at 20 seconds.
Cancellara then went on to wear the yellow jersey for a week by surviving the crashes and controlling the polemics that characterised this year’s Tour far more than in recent years.
The first sprint finish in Brussels was carnage, with Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) tangling with other riders on a late corner and then virtually the whole peloton was blocked by a high-speed crash just as the sprint was opening up.
The day after to Spa through the Ardennes hills was even worse, with dozens of riders crashing on the descent of the Stockeu. Andy Schleck was one of many riders forced to chase after the peloton. Cancellara ordered a go slow, which helped Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) win the stage and take yellow for a day, but also meant Schleck didn’t lose time.
However, Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Transitions) failed to get back on and was forced to quit the Tour after suffering two broken ribs and multiple cuts and bruises. It was a terrible moment for the American, after also crashing out of the Giro d'Italia for a second consecutive year. Fortunately he bounced back, rode the Vuelta and is now working hard for 2011.
The thrills and spills continued on the cobbles during stage three (above). Thor Hushovd (Cervelo TestTeam) won the stage, ahead of the emerging Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) as the Tour de France became Paris-Roubaix for a day.
Cadel Evans (BMC), Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Transitions) and Andy Schleck all finished together at the head of affairs but Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank) crashed out on the pave, breaking his collarbone. Lance Armstrong (RadioShack) punctured and lost two minutes, giving the first indication that the luck that helped him during his seven Tour victories, had deserted him. It was a historic day.
Cavendish surprisingly struggled in the early sprints and seemed unable to produce the speed and success of the previous two years. Petacchi won stage four in Reims and some were ready to write-off Cavendish after his earlier problems of the season.
He turned the tables on his rivals however, took revenge and silenced all his critics in Montargis after a perfect lead out from all of his teammates. Cav was back. Tears rolled down his cheeks on the podium but he then won again in Gueugnon and would go on to win three more stages.
Contador versus Schleck
The Tour followed an anti-clockwise direction this year, with the Alps coming before the Pyrenees. The first real shown down in the mountains came on stage 8 to Morzine Avoriaz. The stage profile included the Col de la Ramaz and revealed who were genuine Tour contenders and cruelly revealed who were not.
Lance Armstrong was caught up in a series of crashes and was left behind, while Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky) lost 1:45 to stage winner Andy Schleck and realised he had little chance of repeating his fourth overall of 2009.
Schleck attacked Contador on the climb to the finish in Morzine Avoriaz and revealed the Spaniards lack of response and acceleration. Cadel Evans suddenly seemed a bigger rival and took the yellow jersey but he would also taste the pain and bitter disappointment of the Tour de France. He had crashed during the stage, suffering a micro fracture in his elbow. He kept it a secret during the first rest day but cracked on stage nine to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, losing eight minutes and the yellow jersey.
The Alps indicated that the Tour de France would become a battle between Contador and Schleck. The race turned into a feud on the road towards the Pyrenees. Schleck was enjoying his first ever spell in the yellow jersey but on the steep finish to Mende, he struggled when Contador made a surprise attack. Schleck would only lose ten seconds at the finish but the psychological blow hurt a lot more and Contador was only 31 seconds behind him.
On stage 15 to Bagneres-de-Luchon, the tension rode even more, with a mechanical problem sparking what would be known as chaingate.
Schleck attacked near the summit of the Port de Balès but his chain came off and in a moment of unsportsmanlike anger, Contador blasted past him and kept going all the way to the finish. Schleck lost 39 seconds and the yellow jersey. He slammed Contador for taking advantage of his me mechanical and promised revenge. Contador later called him to apologise but the fight for the yellow jersey had becoming very personal.
Pierrick Fedrigo (Bbox Bouygues Telecom), Christophe Riblon (AG2R-La Mondiale), Thomas Voeckler (Bbox Bouygues Telecom) all won stages as Contador and Schleck watched each other and prepared for an expected shown down on the finish at the summit of the Col du Tourmalet.
On the day the Tour celebrated the centenary of the Pyrenees, neither rider was able to drop the other on the mist-covered legendary climb. Schleck attacked several times and Contador responded with his own surge but they reached the summit together. Contador seemed to let Schleck take the stage victory but he was only eight seconds down overall and favourite to win his third Tour.
The 52km time trial from Bordeaux to Paulillac would decide the duel. Contador was expected to take yellow because of his superior skills against the clock but he had seemed weaker than in the previous years and Schleck refused to admit defeat.
The lanky Saxo Bank rider started his time trial fast, trying to scare Contador. It worked because the Spaniard seemed rattled. He only managed to carve out a lead in the final part of the time trial and extended his lead to just 39 seconds, exactly the same time he gained on Schleck on stage 15 with his chaingate attack. Denis Menchov (Rabobank) finished third overall and on the podium at 2:01.
All three riders seemed happy on the final podium in Paris after finishing in the slipstream of Mark Cavendish in the sprint on the Champs Elysees but we will have to wait to see if they will ever go head to head in a future edition of the Tour.
Cavendish won his fifth stage with another unbeatable sprint but he failed to win the green jersey. That went to the more consistent Alessandro Petacchi, who ride through the news that he was under investigation for doping in Italy.
Schleck won the white best young rider jersey, Anthony Charteau (Bbox Bouygues Telecom) secured the climber’s polka-dot jersey and Lance Armstrong had one final moment on the Paris podium after RadioShack won the team competition.
Two months later we discovered that Contador had tested positive for Clenbuterol. He will lose his Tour de France victory if found guilty and Schleck will named as the winner. But that is another chapter in the story of the 2010 season.