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By John Wilcockson
The Tour de France organizers’ experiment of making the peloton race up Mont Ventoux the day before the finish had mixed results.
It was a thrill for the estimated 500,000 fans who lined the 21km length of the infamous climb. It was a burden for most of the 156 men who have survived the rigors of another rugged race out of the 198 starters. And it showcased the still-obvious strength of Lance Armstrong to finish ahead of the riders who threatened his third place on the final podium in Paris.
But Ventoux didn’t fulfill its original goal. When race director Christian Prudhomme announced the course nine months ago, he hoped that the 2009 Tour’s hardest mountaintop finish would produce dramatic changes in the final classification. It didn’t. What it did do was make this final weekend of the Tour unnecessarily difficult.
That fact was clear looking at the faces and body language of the riders as they struggled across the finish line at the 6,273-foot summit of the Giant of Provence — especially those who contributed to the ferocious pace leading into the climb, and the men who fought for different goals at the head of the race.
Men like a sweat-stained George Hincapie who knows he’ll be called upon to race just as hard on Sunday in supporting his Columbia-HTC team’s superstar sprinter Mark Cavendish. Or Garmin-Slipstream’s Brad Wiggins, who did everything he could to displace Armstrong for third place, and then, after falling off the leaders’ pace, fought every meter to hang on to fourth by three seconds.
But some riders are finishing this Tour as strong as they started it. Cavendish voluntarily dropped off the front group of 35 riders that reached the foot of Ventoux well ahead of the rest; and at the summit the Brit led home the 53-man gruppetto ahead of his green jersey rival Thor Hushovd, a few seconds ahead of the rest.
Judging by their weariness Saturday evening, the early going in Sunday’s 164km stage 21 will likely be even slower than usual. But with the celebrations of finishing the Tour coming later in the day, expect another tumultuous finish. And a record six sprint victories for Cavendish?
Follow John’s twitter at twitter.com/johnwilcockson. His latest book, “Lance: The Making of the World’s Greatest Champion,” is available at www.velogear.com