The 100th Tour de France may be over and its five-thousand-strong entourage and multiple thousands of fans may have dispersed to distant lands, but Paris was still buzzing about the defining event of the French summer during this weeks sweltering heat wave. The Tour is much more than a bike race. Its a celebration of the French landscape, its towns and villages, along with the people and their heritage.
That was very apparent Sunday night when 350,000 spectators gathered to watch 169 bike racers complete yet another Tour. They transformed the 6.8-kilometer finishing circuit up and down the Avenue des Champs-lyses, around the Arc de Triomphe on the usually traffic-choked 12-armed traffic circle called the toile, and then around the Tuileries Gardens via the Place de la Concorde, into a magnificent arena lined with flag-waving, drum-beating, name-chanting crowds.
At first, it looked like a traditional climax to the 23-day odyssey when the race arrived from Versailleswhere the 21st stage started in front of the grandiose palace of Louis XIV, the Sun King. Then, as the riders of Team Sky led the peloton onto the smooth, arc-patterned cobblestones of the Champs-lyses, eight French Air Force Alphajets from the elite acrobatic team, the Patrouille de France, zoomed in tight formation over the riders from the opposite direction. They trailed three plumes of red to their left, three of blue to their right, and, down the center, not the traditional white, but, as overall winner Chris Froome pointed his index finger toward the jet fighters, a single streak of yellow, the color of his special, sequined jersey of golden yellow.
The dramatic fly-over sparked a flurry of breakaways, most notably by veterans Juan Antonio Flecha and David Millar, then Millar alone, before Marcel Kittel won a thrilling sprint finish, a split-second ahead of fellow German colossus Andr Greipel and a desperately chasing Mark Cavendish. The speed was too much for a sick Lieuwe Westra; the Dutch time trial champion was unable to follow the 60-kph pace, and with six laps to go he become the first man in 37 years to reach Paris and then quit the Tour, simply too weak to continue.
That spectacular sprint finish was a worthy ending to a historic Tour. But that wasnt the end of the celebrations. As workers set up the podium in the center of the Champs-lyses, and the winners prepared themselves for their moment in the spotlight, at the distant end of the crowd-lined boulevard, as the western sky glowed pink beyond, the opaque limestone face of the Arc de Triomphe suddenly turned a brilliant yellow.
It was lit by one of the 26- by 20-foot projectors that, as dusk turned to darkness, transformed Napoleons massive triumphant arch into a flowing tapestry of 14 fast-changing tableaux celebrating Le Tour. The computer-synchronized video-mapping lights produced lightning flashes over alpine peaks, stars peppering a darkened sky, enthusiastic crowds, Bastille Day fireworksand even a few bicycles in a masterly 45-minute son-et-lumire display.
The sound part was provided by a booming swell of symphonic, then synthesized techno music emerging from loudspeakers up and down the 2-kilometer-long boulevard. And, with nighttime upon us and a near-full bulbous moon rising from the eastern skies, it was time for the Tours podium presentations. With each award, the Arc de Triomphe changed colors from green to polka-dot red to white and the ultimately shimmering yellow, as the pulsating music changed from rhapsodic to frenetic to calm.
In this 100th edition, it was almost sacrilege that no French rider or team had won a major award. It was left to a jury made up of five Frenchman and a French-speaking Belgian to decide that the Super Combativit prize went to Christophe Riblon. Even though few outsiders would agree that the winner of the Alpe dHuez stage was the Tours most aggressive rider, Riblon enjoyed his 15 seconds of fame on cyclings biggest stage. And it was compensation for his team, AG2R, which just lost the overall team prize to the Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank squad of Alberto Contador.
Contador didnt have the legs to challenge Froome, and his fourth place overall reflected the Spaniards current status in the Grand Tour hierarchy, but the teams GC victory confirmed the strength of his Saxo-Tinkoff colleaguesespecially first-year team members Michael Rogers and Nicolas Roche, who were noisily greeted by their respective contingents of Australian and Irish fans on the Champs-Elyses.
There was a smaller representation of Slovakians in the crowd to cheer for points winner Peter Sagan, who, at 23, already has two green jerseys safely tucked in his Tour wardrobe; and with perhaps a dozen seasons of racing ahead of him, the Cannondale team leader might well overcome the record six green jerseys won by German sprinter Erik Zabel in a 1996-2001 streak.
Equally young and equally impressive in his particular discipline, climbing, Nairo Quintana from Colombia made perhaps the most brilliant Tour debut of any rider since Eddy Merckx in 1969, when the Belgian swept the yellow, green and polka-dot jerseysand would have taken the white jersey too if thered been a young rider award. This past Sunday, Quintana received the white jersey as the best rider 25 or under, and then the polka dot as best climber, and returned to the podium for a third time as Froomes final runner-up. Quintanas radiant smile lit up the giant TV screens as he received his prizes, eliciting wild cries of elation from his Colombian fans up and down the boulevard.
That order of the final podium1. Froome, 2. Quintana, 3. Joaquim Rodriguezwas fittingly set on the penultimate stage on the final major climb of the race, the Montagne de Semnoz. Like other memorable sites the 100th Tour visitedincluding the broken red granite rocks of the Calanche in Corsica, the fairy-tale Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy, magnificent Mont Ventoux in Provence and the 21 switchbacks of LAlpe dHuezSemnoz mountain puts the French countryside in superb perspective. From its grassy summit, the 360-degree views include the highest alpine peak, Mont Blanc, shrouded in clouds last Saturday, beyond the blue waters of Lake Annecy.
It was here that Froome, Rodriguez and Quintana rode away from second-place Contador, with the Colombian taking his debut stage win 18 seconds ahead of the Spanish climber and 29 seconds in front of Britains second maillot jaune in two years. Froome admitted that his emotions were partly responsible for his fading in the final kilometer of the Semnoz climb. It was overwhelming because I realized that no one was going to take this yellow jersey from me, he said. Ive been focused on this for a year, and attaining this goal is surreal.
Froome was visibly more emotional on the Champs-lyses, when tears welled up as he crossed the finish line hand in hand with his six remaining Sky teammates. Eddy Merckx once said that his winning a first Tour, coming into the Vincennes velodrome packed with 20,000 fans at the end of a final-stage time trial, was also the most emotional moment of his career.
Froome was tremendously nervous before delivering the winners speech from the podium, and his Welsh fiance Michelle Cound wrote out the words on a piece of paper that he read from. The world, still skeptical that cyclists are able to win the Tour clean, will remember he concluded his address with the sentence: This is one yellow jersey that will stand the test of time.
But earlier in his speech, the Kenyan-born, South African-educated, Monaco-based Briton captured the essence of this 100th Tour de France with the words: This is a beautiful country with the finest sporting event on the planet. On this night, when Paris fully lived up to its sobriquet, the City of Light, not even the skeptics could doubt that theyd just witnessed one of the most enthralling editions of the sports greatest race.
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