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A look at the school, the races and the future of this unique 'sport'
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Complementing his prologue victory in Strasbourg three weeks ago, Crédit Agricole's God of Thunder...
Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole) on the podium
Complementing his prologue victory in Strasbourg three weeks ago, Crédit Agricole's God of Thunder finished his Tour de France just the way he started it. Powering past Robbie McEwen in the final one hundred metres as if the maillot vert and the peloton behind him were standing still, Thor Hushovd won arguably the most-prized sprinters' stage in the entire cycling year.
"For a sprinter, I think the best thing that can happen to you is to win a stage on the Champs-Elysées," said a delighted Hushovd. "I've suffered like hell in the Alps and the Pyrenées but I kept thinking of the Champs-Elysées as a motivation for staying in the race.
"With one kilometre to go, there was a hole in front of me; Sébastien Hinault closed it, then Julian Dean overtook everyone else until I took Robbie McEwen's wheel. He [McEwen] opened the sprint but I was stronger than him today. I was just stronger than anybody else," he said, still pumping with adrenalin.
Rolling across the line in 69th place was the maillot jaune of Floyd Landis. It's still hard to fathom the American's performance of three days ago, where he returned from the brink of defeat and staged the most remarkable turnaround since Charly Gaul's comeback victory at the 1958 Tour de France. But that's exactly what he did.
At 30 years-old, the man hailing from the small town of Farmersville in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, could well have another three or four Tours left in him, but much of that will depend on the results of his imminent hip replacement, with surgery expected some time this fall.
"I think this one should be dedicated to Andy Rihs, the boss of the team," said Landis.
"I'm a bit more relaxed [about the surgery] now with this victory. It would have been much worse if I hadn't won the Tour because of an accident or whatever. I certainly know that I'll fight as long as it takes to come back next year, or the following year. Whatever it takes, I will do it to be here again, because it's a dream to me."
Standing on the Paris podium with his daughter Ryan, the final owner of the maillot jaune couldn't have looked happier.
"From my perspective, we raced to win; as to how the race will be rated in history, that is beyond my control," said Landis. "First of all, we raced conservatively, but then, because of the bad day I had, we had to completely change our approach. That's how I found out what I was able to do."
But let's not forget each of the 139 men who finished deserves recognition and applause, for they have raced 3,657 kilometres on all types of terrain and in all sorts of weather conditions, and never lost sight of what now lies before them. Chapeau, le peloton du Tour de France!
Three new faces
It may have been an American standing on the Paris podium, but it was a refreshing podium nonetheless, with three completely different faces to that of one year ago.
"There's a lot of people on the race that want to win," mused Landis when asked if there was a particular trait that has seen yet another American win arguably the toughest endurance event in the world. "Like I said, I feel lucky because it's three weeks long, and a lot of things can happen for a lot of people. Overall, I don't think that Americans are any different from the other guys in the race."
Landis proved that putting all your eggs in one basket isn't a bad thing if there's a chance of winning the world's biggest bike race; Oscar Pereiro may be thinking what might have been if Landis hadn't done so on that day to Morzine, but should also count himself fortunate to have picked the right break one week before that brought him back into contention; and Andreas Klöden should also be satisfied after a superlative performance in yesterday's time trial, and be optimistic about a strong latter half of the season and maybe another step or two higher in Paris next year.
"When I finished that stage, all I felt was humiliation and depression," Landis said of his forgettable day to La Toussuire.
"That was not in any way part of my plan. It took a long time after the race before I felt better and got my spirit back to keep fighting. But that was one of the most humiliating things that has ever happened to me.
"My parents taught me that hard work and patience are some of the most important things in getting what you want. It took me a long time in my life to learn patience," smiled Landis, "but that, and persistence, is the lesson I learned in this race."
"We have been criticised a lot," said Klöden, "but as you can see now, our strategy was right. Everybody did their job, also in the mountains, when I had a bad day. I completed the team's result; this podium placing belongs to all of the team.
"After all of these setbacks I had in my career, I can be proud of what I have achieved with my talent and my work, as well as with my trainer and everybody else who supported me. Now, I'm hungry for more as I've been able to have a go at the victory.
"I would be lying if I said that I'd like to become fourth or third again next year," added Klöden.
"I know that I can be up front in this race, and that I can beat my rivals. Congratulations to Floyd Landis - he had a bad day, too, and came back - as well as to Oscar Pereiro, who really fought hard in the Alps. That just goes to show that you shouldn't let somebody like him [Pereiro] come back... "
A hat-trick of greens for McEwen
Robbie McEwen not only proved he was the best sprinter of the 2006 Tour de France with three stage victories, but also the most consistent; tomorrow, he'll be taking his third maillot vert back to his Belgian home in Brakel.
While world champion Tom Boonen lost confidence by the day before dropping out of the race, and Thor Hushovd unintentionally got gut by an object held by a spectator, McEwen was in a league of his own right from the start. When Fred Rodriguez exited the race, the 34 year-old was thought be vulnerable without his normal TdF lead-out man, but youngster Gert Steegmans filled that role to a T, and played a major role in two of McEwen's wins.
"Every year you have to prove yourself again and again," said Davitamon-Lotto's winningest rider of the last three years. "And you can't forget the fact that I've just turned 34; they often say that when sprinters get older, they get slower; I haven't slowed down yet, so that's a good sign!
"I think that what makes [the Tour de France] special is that every year you start with a big zero on the scoreboard. You have to come here and you have to score. That's the pressure to get that stage win," said McEwen.
In the vein of Landis' magical comeback ride, last year's polka-dot champion Michael Rasmussen successfully defended his maillot á pois title in one fell swoop. When team leader Denis Menchov faltered slightly on the road to L'Alpe d'Huez, the lithe, lanky Dane told his manager Erik Breukink that same night he was going to do it 'my way'.
True to his word, the 32 year-old got himself into the right breakaway on Stage 16, and over the following 150 kilometres, he proceeded to blow each and every one of his companions off his wheel on one of the hardest days of the Tour. Just like Richard Virenque before him, Rasmussen showed that you have to be aggressive to win the maillot á pois classification.
'The Kid' will be back
Speaking of new faces, best young rider Damiano Cunego admitted a few days ago he's fallen in love with La Grande Boucle. After another crack at a second Giro d'Italia victory next year, the 24 year-old Beckham-styled blond from Cerro Veronese says he wants to come back to try and win the 2008 Tour.
Second-placed Marcus Fothen was disappointed with his time trial of yesterday, as he was the logical favourite, but as Cunego discovered: "At the end of the Tour, the legs count more than being a specialist for time trial."
24 year-old Fothen did achieve one of his goals, though - to finish in the top fifteen on the Classement Général - but with Gerolsteiner's leaders Leipheimer and Totschnig not performing as hoped and nearing their mid-30s, he'll have more responsibility on his shoulders next year.
"I deeply wanted to win this jersey," Cunego said. "I share the jersey with all the people who have suffered with me when nothing was going well for me. This experience at the Tour shows me that the best result can come with serenity instead of pressure."
How it unfolded
Just after half-past one on a sunny Sunday afternoon, the 139 remaining riders left in this year's Tour de France via avenue Le Notre in Sceaux-Antony on the outskirts of Paris.
Two riders weren't able to make it: Phonak's Robert Hunter failed to make the time cut yesterday, as he had to do the whole TT out of the saddle because of a bad saddle sore; and French champion Florent Brard crashed during the TT and broke his hand.
Like last year, the peloton followed an anti-clockwise route on the smaller departmental roads; first to Palaiseau (km 25.5) and then Nanterre (72 kilometres), before continuing on the D1 that took the riders into central Paris. The first hour was covered at a quaint 30 kilometre-an-hour average - the slowest start to a Tour stage yet! Continuing to stroll through the streets as if on a coffee ride, Phonak led the peloton at a moderate tempo as they edged ever closer to their final destination.
Entering the famous cobblestoned street of the Rue de Rivoli marked the beginning of the end; after just nine circuits of 6.5 kilometres, the 2006 Tour de France would come to a close for another year. As tradition has it, Floyd Landis' six remaining team-mates gave their fearless leader the virtual red carpet treatment by leading the maillot jaune and the peloton behind him onto the Champs-Elysées.
Once on the world-famous tree-lined boulevard, escape attempts were numerous, but none were allowed to get too far away. The most promising move started at 40 km to go and grew to contain Fabian Wegmann (Gerolsteiner), Jens Voigt (CSC), Mikel Astarloza (AG2R), Johan Vansummeren, Chris Horner (Davitamon), Yaroslav Popovych (Discovery), Anthony Charteau (CA), Christian Knees (Milram), Moises Duenas (Agritubel), Pierrick Fedrigo (Bouygues), Christophe Mengin, Philippe Gilbert (FDJ), Vicente Garcia Acosta, Nicolas Portal (Caisse d'Epargne), David Millar (Saunier Duval), Aitor Hernández (Euskaltel). The break gained half a minute, but the presence of two Davitamons and one Credit Agricole rider, who were all not working, doomed it to be caught by the chasing Cofidis and Liquigas teams. With 13 kilometres left to race, it was peloton groupé.
Entering the final lap, Crédit Agricole and Davitamon-Lotto led the field at breakneck speed, hoping to deliver a win for their sprinters Thor Hushovd and Robbie McEwen. With 150 metres to go, one of these two was set for victory, and as things turned out, it was the God of Thunder who powered past the Pocket Rocket from Down Under, winning the final stage by a country mile.