By Rupert Guinness, Special to VeloNews
For a Tour de France finale that was supposed to be a fait accompli — with Lance Armstrong virtually guaranteed a seventh win and the stage supposedly promised to the sprinters — Sunday’s stage 21 into the city of Paris hardly fit the bill.
That the 144.5km stage began under gray skies and with cold rain should have been a sign that the race that brought the curtain down on 3593km of racing would have something special to offer. And it did.
Foremost of the day’s surprises was the winner on the Champs-Élysées, the most attacking rider of the peloton, the ever-popular Kazakhstan national champion Alex Vinokourov (T-Mobile).
His win after breaking clear of the pack in the final 2km with Australian Brad McGee (Française des Jeux) was a huge coup; as was McGee’s bold move, which will have won back some faith in him after a shocking Tour.
Even before the stage win was in the bag, Vinokourov had every reason to celebrate the way his Tour was ending. At the first of two intermediate sprints, 75km into the stage, he overcame his two-second GC deficit on Levi Leipheimer (Gerolsteiner) by out-kicking the American despite two other Gerolsteiner riders helping him.
As he has shown over and over in this Tour, when Vinokourov attacks, he attacks again. And when he has done that he will attack some more.
And that is exactly what Vino would do after a number of attacks on the eight laps of the Champs-Élysées circuit —including a two-lap effort by American Chris Horner (Saunier Duval-Prodir) and Dutchman Bram Tankink (Quick Step-Innergetic) that was closed down with 9km (one and a half laps) to go. It seemed that the scene was set for a massed bunch sprint.
Then Vinokourov and Frenchman Laurent Brochard (Bouygues Télécom) attacked with 3km to go. And when it seemed the move was doomed and the shadow of the peloton came tumbling down on them like a big wave, the Kazakh bolted off again.
Soon after, McGee shot off the front in pursuit of Vinokourov and then attacked him with about 800 meters to go. McGee’s pace and Vinokourov’s acceleration were perfectly timed to give them the jump they needed on the peloton, which by now was losing its momentum.
Soon after passing the notoriously tricky right turn onto the cobblestones of the 400-meter-long finishing straight, McGee launched his sprint.
But Vinokourov, still fueled by the inspiration of his close friend and former fellow professional Andrei Kivilev, who was killed in a crash at the 2002 Paris-Nice stage race, had every answer and swiftly swooped past McGee to win the stage.
“There was a lot of emotion. In days like today I often think of him,” said Vinokourov, who used to live with Kivilev while the two raced together as amateurs on the same club at St Etienne.
“This is the biggest moment for me on this Tour,” he continued. “It is a great feeling to win any stage, but to win here is a good feeling. I can feel happy.”
Vinokourov, who has already announced that he will be leaving T-Mobile after this season, would not say where he is going. “I hope to have that sorted out in the next week,” he said.
Wherever he winds up, Vinokourov, whose attacking style contradicts the Armstrong doctrine (“one attack, two good time trials”), has won the hearts of many at this Tour.
Asked what he felt during a typical attack, he said, “You can’t think of anything but attack. You are just giving the maximum. But I like to attack and I always will. And today it worked.”
But Vinokourov, whose panache rewarded him with fifth place on GC, 11:10 behind Armstrong, was not the only rider to provide the last stage with unexpected storylines.
An era ends
In fact Armstrong “entertained” — and not just with his role in the traditional photo-op with the other jersey winners on the podium. He started by thanking his close associates within the bunch during the neutralized zone and early kilometers after the official start, which saw many riders dressed in garb more suited to the spring classics.
Armstrong’s deliberate approaches, one-by-one, to fellow riders and team directors as he dropped off the back of the ambling peloton were touching. It all added to everyone’s sense that a great champion’s era was fast approaching its end.
But as the rain continued to fall, the sight of the glistening suburban roads only heralded the warning that a pileup was only a blink of an eye-lid away — as everyone was reminded when riders slipped on bends and painted road markings.
Then after about 82km on a right turn the unimaginable happened: Three Discovery Channel riders in front of Armstrong slipped and fell right in front of the soon-to-be seven-time Tour champion, who was on their wheels.
That the peloton was not racing at high speed was fortunate, because Armstrong was brought to a halt and even had time to pull out his right foot from the pedal. There was no panic, but the stern look on Armstrong’s face after remounting and riding on was certainly a contrast to the one he had while joking and saying his farewells to comrades and the like.
If ever there were a moment to remember and fulfilling the truth of the old cliché — that the Tour is never over until Paris— that was it.
The arrival of the peloton onto the Champs-Élysées was as spectacular as ever, despite the poor weather. The image of the 155 riders hugging the banks of the Seine River on their approach to the world’s greatest avenue was like that of an army’s return from war.
And like the great armies, when it hit the famed cobblestones, it was led by its general — in this case, Armstrong and his Discovery Channel teammates.
Soon after their arrival on the slick bricks, the race jury declared that official timing had ended, a decision that sealed Armstrong’s new and elevated place in history.
His final margin of victory in his seventh Tour was 4:40 over CSC’s Ivan Basso and 6:21 on third-placed Jan Ullrich (T-Mobile). Speaking after the presentation about his two colleagues, Armstrong said that “Ivan is the future of the Tour and may be standing on this [top] step next year,” before hastily turning to Ullrich and adding, “or it could be Jan.”
For the rest, all that remained was the stage win and a scrap for points in the green-jersey competition being led by Norwegian Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole).
Vinokourov’s and McGee’s shot for the win negated that. With them taking the 35 and 30 points for first and second, and Swiss Fabian Cancellara (Fassa Bortolo) the 26 for third, Hushovd’s green jersey was left unchallenged.
Finishing seventh, behind the Australian trio of Robbie McEwen (Davitamon-Lotto), who won the bunch sprint, Stuart O’Grady (Cofidis) and Allan Davis (Liberty Seguros), Hushovd was the overall points winner. The other two jersey winners were Denmark’s Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank),who took the best-climber title, and Ukraine’s Yaroslav Popovych (Discovery Channel), claiming the white jersey of best young rider. T-Mobile took the team prize, while Oscar Pereiro (Phonak) was crowned the overall winner of the combativity competition.
Stage 20 results
1. Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz), T-Mobile
2. Bradley McGee (Aus), Francaise des Jeux, same time
3. Fabian Cancellara (Swi), Fassa Bortolo, s.t.
4. Robbie McEwen (Aus), Davitamon-Lotto, s.t.
5. Stuart O’Grady (Aus), Cofidis, s.t.
6. Allan Davis (Aus), Liberty Seguros, s.t.
7. Thor Hushovd (Nor), Credit Agricole, s.t.
8. Baden Cooke (Aus), Francaise des Jeux, s.t.
9. Bernhard Eisel (A), Francaise des Jeux, s.t.
10. Robert Förster (G), Gerolsteiner, s.t.
1. Lance Armstrong (USA), Discovery Channel
2. Ivan Basso (I), CSC, at 4:40
3. Jan Ullrich (G), T-Mobile, at 6:21
4. Francisco Mancebo (Sp), Illes Balears, at 9:59
5. Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz), T-Mobile, at 11:01
6. Levi Leipheimer (USA), Gerolsteiner, at 11:21
7. Mickael Rasmussen (Dk), Rabobank, at 11:33
8. Cadel Evans (Aus), Davitamon-Lotto, at 11:55
9. Floyd Landis (USA), Phonak, at 12:44
10. Oscar Pereiro Sio (Sp), Phonak, at 16:04
To see how the final stage developed, simply CLICK HERE to open our Live Update Window.