By winning the 98th edition, Australian Cadel Evans again proved that the Tour de France is a race for time-trial specialists rather than blue-blooded climbers.
It goes without saying that these metronomes must still be able to save face in the mountains – for the Tour dislikes non-climbers as much as they hate going uphill.
Arguably the most consistent climber over the past two years and destined for at least one Tour win if you listen to the experts, Luxembourg’s Andy Schleck again conceded overall victory to a superior rider against the clock within spitting distance of Paris.
He isn’t the first specialist climber to have suffered this fate – nor will he be the last.
Evidence suggests that clinging to the coattails of mountain goats like him through the Pyrenees and Alps and then letting rip in the final time-trial offers surprisingly better odds than the other way round.
This year, for instance, Evans was able to dish out just as much pain to the younger of the Schlecks in a 42.5-kilometre flat loop around Grenoble as the latter was able to do in six murderous mountain stages totalling a thousand.
Although you can certainly lose the Tour in one fell swoop in the mountains (just ask Spain’s multiple champions Alberto Contador and Miguel Indurain), to win it on a single uphill stage seems infinitely less achievable.
Schleck’s monstrous effort on the Col de Galibier is a case in point. It was possibly the classiest performance by any rider at this year’s race, but, besides eliminating Contador, he has nothing but a soft toy to show for it.
The history books confirm this trend. Only about once every decade does a climber prove so dominant on his terrain that even the “race of truth” cannot deny him.
Dane Michael Rasmussen came close in 2007 before he was unceremoniously yanked from the Tour while leading. Judging by his total collapse in the final time-trial the previous year, chances are that he would’ve suffered a similar fate to Schleck at the hands of eventual winner Contador.
In 2008, Spain’s Carlos Sastre was the only climber of the most recent decade to outdistance the time-trial specialists enough to don yellow in Paris (interestingly, the man to lose out then was Evans).
Italy’s Marco Pantani was successful exactly ten years before him and Spain’s Pedro Delgado a decade earlier in 1988. The Belgian, Lucien van Impe, rubbed the time-triallists’ noses in it in 1976.
It is almost heartbreaking to think that the heroic exploits of climbers such as Italy’s Claudio Chiappucci and France’s Richard Virenque led to nothing but polka dots.
The former won at Sestrieres in 1992 after more than 230 kilometres in the lead while the latter’s epic rides to Luz Ardiden (1994), Mont Ventoux (2002) and Morzine (2003) were worthy of a Tour champion – surely?
Sadly for them, their exploits in the high mountains were almost as legendary as their inability to hang on to their advantage during the time-trials.
Instead the Anquetils, Hinaults, Indurains and Armstrongs of this world – all pure men against the clock – laid the foundations for their overall victories in one, two or three short solo bursts en route to the Champs Élysées.
In celebrating the centenary of the Alps’ first inclusion in the Tour, this year’s race possibly featured more climbing and less time-trialling than most other years. Despite this, the spoils still went to a man who was – relatively speaking – on the back foot in the mountains.
With the likelihood extremely slim that any future route will be more suitable to Contador’s heir apparent, it is difficult to envisage how Schleck is going to manufacture his first win.
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