Everyone agrees that this year's Tour de France was one of the best in years, with its peloton now a dope-free, level playing field. And so, after a most titillating stage on Thursday, I couldn't wait for Friday to see what might crop up next. A short stage (109.5km) with three categorized climbs, including the hors categorie up l'Alpe d'Huez, Stage 19 was expected to cook the GC, and indeed, it did succeed in stirring up the lees in tanks.
Not one to shy away from confrontation, Contador attacked on the first climb, prompting Andy and Cadel to jump. Dancing on the tips of his pedals up and up, Contador forced Voeckler to dig a little deeper so that he wouldn't get dropped. There was a break up ahead, but it mattered not to this gang of four. Brother Frank had been gapped and all of the sprinters were long gone, much like the day before when 80 racers had finished outside of the time limit, forcing the judges to make an exception so that they might reenter and finish the Tour. Shimmying up the Col du Telegraphe like a stream of bubbles, Contador attacked again. Evans stopped on the side of the road with a mechanical, and by 84km, Voeckler was riding the wheel of his countryman, Jerome Pineau of Quick Step, who'd offered him a hand.
As they descended, Voeckler tucked and sped, chasing Contador, who couldn't get anyone else in the breakaway to work. Riding on the wheels of his teammates, Evans caught and passed the yellow jersey. With 24.8km to go, the lead group contained Evans and 13 other men. And then suddenly, as if nothing had ever happened, at the base of l'Alpe d'Huez, Voeckler, Contador, Evans, and the Schlecks were all together again. Not feeling the love, Contador attacked again, perhaps not yet realizing the power behind the youthful vintage of Pierre Rolland. At 2km to go, the young domestique for Voeckler's Team Europcar jumped and held the ferocity of Contador at bay. Taking the stage, Rolland also won the youth classification, but Andy Schleck had taken the leader's jersey.
With a 53” advantage over brother Frank, and just 57” ahead of Evans, Andy's Tour was still fermenting in the bottle. Pale straw in comparison to the time-trialing skills of Evans, Andy's act of obtaining the yellow jersey atop l'Alpe d'Huez was no indication that his endgame was ready for disgorgment.
Stage 20 was an out and back Individual Time Trial, that started and ended in Grenoble–a single vintage competition as opposed to the cuvée of the peloton. And while 166 riders rode the course, no one else really mattered because this was a race was between Schleck and Evans. Riding down the ramp, Cadel was released before the yellow jersey. Along the technical course with many twists and bends, Evans powered along with amazing strength and cadence. Andy's heart must have felt like a grape ready to burst, as everyone knows that Evans is a much stronger ITT-er. As the split screen showed one alongside the other, it was clear that Andy was struggling while Evans inched closer towards the yellow. At every checkpoint he clocked second to HTC's Tony Martins, and that is exactly how they finished. Martins took the stage and Evans earned the yellow; Andy turned from Premier Cru to Second Growth, 1'34” behind Cadel and 56” ahead of his brother.
Generally a simple formality for all but the sprinters, Evans could ride the final stage without DPIs pushing the cork on his bottle. As the peloton neared Paris, our eyes were on Champagne, home to Billecart-Salmon, the oldest continuously family owned and operated house in the region, just 120km east of Paris.
In the early 1800's Nicholas Francois Billecart married Elisabeth Salmon, a communion that also joined the families' vineyards. Founded in 1818, Billecart-Salmon is now operated by the seventh generation–brothers Francois and Antoine Rolland-Billecart, who own a total of 15ha of vineyards. With 11ha in Vallee de la Marne and 4ha in the village of Damery, the family also rents 50ha of vines and buys grapes from another 100ha, but it's their 4ha of Grand Cru vineyards that's the family's prized possession.
In 2001, Billecart-Salmon relocated to one of the most technologically advanced facilities in the region. It is here that they can simultaneously maintain 75 micro-fermentations. Favoring an early harvest, with the belief that it produces Champagne that's more delicate and elegant, Billecart-Salmon also employs a “double cold setting,” to eliminate wild yeasts and heavy elements without having to rely on filtering. A slow fermentation–for up to five weeks–helps preserve delicate fruit aromas, which is most beneficial when used with Pinot Meunier, a varietal that the family believes is a vital ingredient in world class Champagne production.
Were they drinking Billecart-Salmon on the final stage to Champs-Elysees in Paris? I'm afraid I missed the bottle. But Evans sure looked a little wobbly as he rode aside the team car toasting glasses. Protected by his mates of Team BMC, Cadel's single goal was to arrive at finish safely. And as they approached the final round, Team HTC took to the front to prove once again that they are the kings of the sprinter's lead out. Taking Cavendish to the line for his fifth and final stage victory, HTC supported his third win in Paris along with his winning of the sprinter's Green Jersey.
The podium on Champs-Elysees was set for Evans, as the first Australian to ever win the Tour. The brothers Schlecks finished second and third, but Andy's got youth on his side and so maybe next year it'll be he who's drinking bubbly.