THE WEEKLY RAP SPECIAL: REFLECTIONS ON THE 2007 TOUR DE FRANCEBy Rick Scott
There is a famous three-ring circus that has billed itself “the greatest show on earth” for decades, but after what we witnessed this year in the most unpredictable, most unexpected, and most dramatic Tour de France in recent memory, perhaps this three-week bike race deserves the billing.
With what happened last year before and immediately after the race vivid in our minds, cycling was in desperate need of a fresh start. The race organizers planned a little holiday for the riders to start this year’s episode as the French race opened in London, England with a 7.9-kilometer prologue. After weeks of rain and cold temperatures, summer smiled upon “Le Grande Depart” as sunny skies and warm temperatures welcomed the riders while over one million people filled the streets to witness the launch of the race. The air was electric and the buzz powered the cyclists as they sped past some of London’s most historic buildings and landmarks, including Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, and the Houses of Parliament. Time trial World Champion Fabian Cancellara (CSC) continued his recent time trial winning streak to take the first yellow jersey as Tour leader. The next day, two million spectators were out along the race route from London to Canterbury. After crashing just over 20 kilometers from the finish, Predictor-Lotto’s speedster Robbie McEwen dusted himself off and clawed his way back to the front, dusting the field by a huge gap to win the first stage in heroic fashion on yet another glorious summer day. Ah…the Tour got exactly what it needed from its short sojourn in England: a much needed boost of renewed energy and excitement.
As the race moved through the first week of flat stages, Cancellara wore the leader’s jersey like the champion he is. He even caught the peloton by surprise and ruined the day for the sprinters when he leapt off the front and charged past the breakaway group to win Stage 3. Now that’s the way to race in the yellow jersey! No one expected Cancellara, a powerful flatlander, to retain the GC lead when the race hit the mountains, but he rode with pride and valiantly defended the jersey each day he was honored to hold it.
The mountain tests began in the Alps on Stage 7, which included the climb of Col de la Colombiere. Twenty-four-year-old Linus Gerdemann attacked from the break to win it alone while also taking enough time to claim the yellow jersey for his T-Mobile squad. Although his stay in yellow lasted only a single day, Gerdemann gave us all a glimpse of the future of cycling as well as confirmation that T-Mobile has indeed been reborn. During the next stage, unfortunately the magenta squad lost their captain, Michael Rogers, to a crash while he was in the leading break and the virtual yellow jersey on the road. Australia not only lost Rogers that day, but McEwen was sent home after missing the time cut and CSC’s Paris-Roubaix winner and all-around great guy Stuart O’Grady was seriously hurt in a crash that put him into the hospital for two weeks with broken ribs, a separated shoulder and injured vertebrae.
The third Alpine stage introduced the world to a gangly Colombian climber named Juan Mauricio Soler (Barloworld), another 24-year-old who charged up to the leading break and blew right past them, impressively stomping on the pedals to score a solo victory at Briancon.
In the flat stages before the next big rendezvous – the first of two individual time trials – Quick.Step’s Tom Boonen collected his second stage win of the Tour on Stage 12, which helped give the 26-year-old the lead for good in the points race, which he’d hold all the way to Paris. As per usual, throughout the Tour, the sprinters brought us high-speed thrills and spills with most of the speed demons – Boonen, McEwen, Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole), Robert Hunter (Barloworld) and Daniele Bennati (Lampre-Fondital) – collecting at least one stage win while Mr. Consistency, Erik Zabel (Milram) battled fiercely for the green jersey as well.
While the riders had been enjoying sunshine and warm weather up until this point, most got wet during their 54-kilometer time trial in Albi. A few riders went down, including Cancellara, but everyone got up to finish. What we saw that day from one rider was not to be believed and it turned out not to be. The rider was disqualified and the stage win was subsequently given to Cadel Evans (Predictor-Lotto). The stage proved decisive as GC favorite Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne) and great French hope Christophe Moreau (AG2R) lost far too much time to still be considered favorites after stage 13.
Three Pyrenean stages were next and no one could match the accelerations on the steepest mountain passes of the rider wearing the white jersey as the leader of the under age 26 competition: Discovery Channel’s Alberto Contador. Actually one rider was able to hang onto the 24-year-old Spanish rider, but he was later disqualified and dismissed from his team. Contador won Stage 14 and gained enough time on the other contenders in the mountain stages that he was given the yellow jersey after Stage 17.
The stage was set for a final showdown between the top 3 GC men to determine the overall winner in the Stage 19 time trial. With Contador holding a 1:50 lead over Evans, who is a better time trailer than the yellow jersey, and with Amgen Tour of California winner Levi Leipheimer (Discovery Channel) down an additional 59 seconds in 3rd, the 55.5-kilometer race against the clock would settle who would claim what step on the final podium. With the riders starting in reverse order, Leipheimer, the Disco captain, went off first. The Santa Rosa resident rode with fire and desire to blaze to his first-ever Tour de France stage win. Again Evans was a powerful force, but with Leipheimer’s ride being the fourth fastest time trial ever in Tour history, the Australian had to dig deeply to hang onto 2nd place GC, which he did by a scant eight seconds over the Californian. Contador lost time to Evans the entire ride, but would he lose two seconds per kilometer and lose the Tour? No. Inspired by a visit by team co-owner and seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong, Contador pedaled a high cadence to a strong 5th place stage finish to hang onto his overall lead by 23 seconds over Evans and 31 seconds over teammate Leipheimer. When the race concluded in Paris on the Champs-Elysees in a sprint stage won by Bennati, the 31 seconds difference was the smallest margin between the top 3 in Tour de France history.
In addition to his first Tour de France win, Contador won the Best Young Rider’s jersey. Soler won the King of the Mountains throne. Boonen saved his season by winning the Points competition. Discovery Channel capped a dream Tour by claiming the team title to go along with their 1st and 3rd place finishers. Spain not only celebrated Contador’s win, but they had six countrymen in the top 10.
When you look beyond the headlines, this year’s Tour de France did give us numerous positive harbingers for cycling. Fifty riders (i.e. more than 25% of the peloton) competed in the race for the first time, which confirms that we are indeed at the dawn of a new era. The four American finishers – Leipheimer, Chris Horner (Predictor-Lotto), George Hincapie (Discover Channel) and Christian Vande Velde (CSC) – all finished in the top 25. The World Champion rode with panache while on the biggest and brightest cycling stage in the world. Three 24-year-olds, including the winners of the overall and the prestigious mountains title, gave us all reassurance and hope for the future of our beloved sport. The courses remained crammed with boisterous cycling fans taking in the spectacle of the greatest show on earth. Vive Le Tour!
# # #
Rick Scott is president of Great Scott P.R.oductions, an entertainment and sports public relations, marketing and management boutique. He can be contactead through www.greatscottpr.com.