The 97th Tour de France was filled with action after a lackluster 2009 edition.
A new rivalry was cemented – winner Alberto Contador of Spain barely defeated Luxembourg’s Andy Schleck on the penultimate day – as the race bid adieu to seven-time champion Lance Armstrong, riding in his final Tour amidst a developing federal doping investigation.
But this year’s race will be remembered for the course as much as for the riders. The 2,263-mile journey was one of the toughest in recent years, with stages over cobblestones and two trips up the brutal Col du Tourmalet, an iconic Pyrénéan mountain pass.
Myriad crashes quickly winnow top contenders
Some riders were knocked out of contention; others, like Andy Schleck’s brother and teammate Frank, were forced to leave the race with injuries.
Remaining contenders suffered at the hands of Contador and Schleck, who separated themselves from the pack before the race was even halfway over.
“Right now it looks like it’s just Alberto versus me,” said Schleck after Stage 9, when he picked up the yellow jersey on the second-to-last Alpine stage.
The two continued their duel in the Pyrénées, celebrating its 100th anniversary in the Tour this year.
Schleck lost his lead on the first day in the mountain range, after Contador infamously attacked just as Schleck's chain popped off during Stage 15, and promised “revenge” on Contador up the Col du Tourmalet, a nearly 7,000-foot pass with one of the race’s richest histories.
But he couldn’t make up an eight-second gap and fell further behind during Saturday’s individual time trial, eventually losing by 39 seconds.
2010 Tour refreshingly free of doping
“I've felt under so much pressure,” said Contador, the defending champion. “It's such a huge relief to have won the title.”
Tour organizers also exhaled deeply on Sunday after a race devoid of positive drug tests.
But ongoing doping probes, which sometimes can turn up illegal drug use after the Tour ends, were constant reminders of the sport’s struggles.
But major probe of Armstrong looms
More potentially damaging to cycling’s image, however, is the US Food and Drug Administration’s investigation of Lance Armstrong, spurred in part by allegations levied against him by former teammate Floyd Landis.
On the eve of the race, Landis – who had spent the past four years defending his innocence after being stripped of his 2006 Tour title for doping – did an about face, admitting his own illegal drug use and implicating his teammates in what he described as cycling's systemic doping culture.
In highly detailed accounts given to the Wall Street Journal and ESPN, he alleged that Armstrong had promoted doping on his US Postal team and helped teammates such as Landis learn how to cheat without getting caught.
Subsequent developments, including federal investigator Jeff Novitzky's subpoenaing of former Tour winner Greg LeMond and ex-Armstrong teammate Tyler Hamilton, strongly suggest that this will result in more than a showdown between Landis's tainted credibility and Armstrong's Teflon image.
Armstrong, the Tour's most decorated athlete with seven consecutive wins, was well aware of this throughout the last three weeks, during which he hired a criminal defense attorney and continued to distance himself from any involvement with performance-enhancing drugs
“As long as I live, I will deny it,” Armstrong said. “There was absolutely no way I forced people, encouraged people, told people, helped people, facilitated.”
He didn’t find much relief from swirling questions in strong racing – at one point he trailed Contador, his teammate and nemesis in the 2009 Tour, by almost 40 minutes.
But Armstrong attempted a final shot at glory: on Stage 16, he led a breakaway over four grueling climbs before succumbing to France’s Pierrick Fédrigo in a sprint finish.
Armstrong's team wins, Contador and Schleck take up his mantle
In Paris, Armstrong received a consolation prize.
On the train from Bordeaux to Paris on Sunday, the 38-year-old Armstrong said he’d had enough.
“I’ve got my competitive fix for the next 40 years,” he told Reuters.
The last time Armstrong retired from cycling was after winning the 2005 Tour, his seventh race victory.
During his three-year absence, there was a power vacuum in the peloton as many struggled to stake their claim.
This time around, he’s leaving the sport with Contador and Schleck firmly planted at the top.
At 27 and 25, respectively, the two should have many battles for years to come.
Schleck is already looking forward to the 2011 race, whose route – determined years in advance after incognito visits by a bespectacled former geography professor – will be announced in October. “I will come back next year to win,” he predicted. “[Contador] is not unbeatable.”