By John Trevorrow in Paris
All of the record ten Australians who started this year's Tour made it to Paris, an impressive achievement in a race that left 45 of its 189 starters on the roadside between Fromentine and Paris. For some it was a three-week baptism of fire, while for others it was just one particularly hard day in the office after another. Among the Australian contingent there was relief, elation, disappointment and determination at the end of the grand boucle.
The best Australian finisher was riding - at last - in his very first Tour de France. Cadel Evans (Davitamon-Lotto) was sidelined by injury and team politics in 2003 and 2004 and came to the 2005 Tour very much as a man with something to prove.
For Evans the end of the Tour was, "a big relief. It will hit me in a couple of days I suppose. Something as long as this… I've been so focused on the process I sort of don't know what I've done yet."
"It is a lot different to any other race," he said. And it has been three weeks of self-discovery for Evans. "I needed to know what I could and can't do," he said. "I know I can't climb with Lance every day. But I can climb with him sometimes, when the climb suits me."
This being his first tour it was also the first time Evans had experienced the sheer size of the Paris finale. Getting there had been interesting, though. "Today was ridiculously dangerous until it dried out near the end," said Evans, who represented Australia as a mountain biker at the 1996 Olympics. "I remember walking into the opening ceremony at the Atlanta Games and Stephen Hodge said to me that the final day in Paris was even bigger. I thought 'oh yeah.' Well it certainly is something different. It's because you've made it to Paris and through all you've been through over the 3000 kms, it's kinda harder than qualifying for the Olympics I think."
Bradley McGee (Francaise des Jeux) was second in the final stage after chasing down Alexandre Vinokourov but not being able to get past him on the line. Was he disappointed? "Yeah it is a bit disappointing. Cookie [Baden Cooke] said to go so I went for it, I thought I had him for a minute. He didn't come straight to my wheel when I did the final attack. But once I saw him there, well with a rider like that what do you do? I tried to force him around but the other guys were coming so I just had to go for it. I didn't die at all, I felt good and strong and hungry all the way, I can't believe he got off me. What do you do?"
The weather and road conditions had been a big concern for Stuart O'Grady (Cofidis). "Boy it was a rough last day," he said. "It hasn't rained on the final day for - well I can't remember when. It was very dangerous coming into the final laps and it was a good thing it dried up a bit. When your on city roads and it hasn't rained for a month, then it's like riding on an ice skating rink."
O'Grady having a dig at the green jersey contest on the last day was always a long shot, and O'Grady was impressed at Alexandre Vinokourov's winning style. "The team rode well for me but it just didn't work out," said O'Grady."Good old Vino, what a legend. He can win any type of race that guy."
Looking back over the last three weeks, O'Grady said, "I feel I've had a pretty good Tour and I've been consistent but just couldn't break through. It was a good ride of Thor's and it was good to see him finally break through. I know how it feels to be knocking on the door. Maybe next year."
As for the yellow jersey winner, O'Grady was frank in his praise. "What a performance by Lance," he said. "He really is the champion of the Tour and there really hasn't been a rider, in the past few years, who can get anywhere near him."
Baden Cooke (Francaise des Jeux) is one of the contingent that hasn't performed at his best this Tour, showing none of the snap that gained him the green jersey in 2003. "I thought Brad was going to get it for a while," said Cooke of the finale. "He and I went into today hoping to salvage our Tour. We were both feeling good and we tried the same manoeuvre that worked a couple of years ago. He moved up like he was giving me a lead out and I let him go. It didn't work out and I'm very disappointed. But it is the biggest race in the world and you can't just do what you want."
Matt White (Cofidis) was happy to have finally started and finished a Tour. "Finally here hey, finally here," he said. "It's really, really great to be here. It is huge here on the Champs Elysees. I've done the Olympics and the other grand tours, but this is really special. One of the best bike riders in the world just won here, Vinokourov. He can win in the mountains, he can win on the flat and he is the most aggressive rider in the Tour de France. For me, He and Bettini are the two most complete bike riders on the planet.
"But Lance - wow. You can't compare eras and there is no doubt that Eddy Merckx is the greatest bike rider ever. But Lance is definitely the greatest Tour de France rider ever."
Allan Davis (Liberty Seguros) is already looking ahead. "Yeah glad it's all over," he said. "I felt I had pretty good form but the breaks just didn't fall my way. I am looking forward to a couple of days off and then it's back into it. I hope to reach peak form again at the World championships in Madrid in September."
Luke Roberts (CSC) almost didn't make it to Paris, crashing on the slippery roads on the way to the French capital and looking pained when he climbed back on his bike. So getting to Paris was doubly special for Roberts. "Yeah it was but I didn't expect it to be quite like this. The weather wasn't too good and I had a fall along the way but once we the final few laps and the roads dried up a bit then it was awesome. It was a huge buzz especially with the roar from the big crowds."
Robbie McEwen (Davitamon-Lotto) and his team had been saying for several days that the final stage was a major target. So was he a little disappointed at the result on the Champs Elysees? "Oh yeah," said McEwen. "Overall it's been a fantastic Tour and I am happy with three stage wins but I really wanted to win today. Problem was, right at the end there was no-one to do that last 500m from the one kilo mark. Nobody went and Hushovd told his guy to actually stop when he went to close the gap and that baulked everybody and the group stayed away. There was just nobody left to chase. My guys had all done a lot of work, Freddy had done an awesome job, but we just missed somebody to do that extra bit.
"It's disappointing because I had the speed. As it turned out Brad virtually led out Vino but he was going for a stage win. I actually said to one of my team-mates that he should watch out Brad as he would try and go for it in the last kilo."
McEwen was also impressed with the total domination of the yellow jersey. "Lance was incredible," he said. "I have said since last year. Nobody can win the Tour until Lance decides to stop. Well that has finally happened."