It was the usual run in to Paris in so many ways, but then, in so many other ways it was very unique. Sure there was the usual moments of the various jersey winners posing for their picture at the front of the final stages roll-out, sure there was the obligatory glass of champagne for the Yellow jersey on the outskirts of Paris, and sure the stage still finished with its crit up and down the Champs-Elyeese, but then there was all the new stuff: Finishing at dusk, going around the Arc de Triomphe and someone not called Mark Cavendish winning the stage.
As ever the stage was a slow one to begin with. Everyone was celebrating the fact they had made it through three weeks of hard racing and nursing a few heavy heads and stomachs from their rare treat of junk food and an extra glass or two of wine the night before given the real work had been completed. That jersey picture was taken, the glass of champagne drank, and even Nairo Quintana and Joaquim Rodriguez — second and third in this tour — spent about ten minutes on the front of the peloton trying to light a cigar.
It was a parade, a closing ceremony if you will, and everyone was reveling in the moment that they had made it. For Froome it was the chance to realise his dream of winning the race, for Sagan it was enjoying the repeat of the Green jersey, for many others it was the satisfaction that they had simply finished it. Take Canada’s Svein Tuft. A 36-year old veteran cyclist who was riding his first Tour. He finished dead last as the 2013 Lanterne Rouge. His job was as a domestique: He worked for the team, he helped them win the team-time-trial, he spent time on the front of the peloton relentlessly over the first week when his Orica GreenEdge team were passing the Yellow jersey among themselves, and he suffered over the mountains. Finishing last isn’t a disgrace in the Tour. It’s respected because you still finished and so he too could enjoy the moment.
Still, none of them could let their guard down entirely. While the ride into Paris might be a traditional ceasefire, once they arrived onto the famous streets of the Champs-Élysées, the gloves come off again and the racing started for real, one last time. Don’t get dropped, don’t crash, make sure you cross the line at the end of the nine laps because if you don’t, the last three weeks have been for nothing. For Froome he needed to make sure he didn’t get caught out in an accident outside the 3 kilometres to go banner which could have seen him lose time. It was unlikely but it could happen and not until inside that marker could he truly throw his arms up. Indeed, he chose to do this by sitting back with his team-mates and crossing the line with them, altogether, arms around one another. It cost him 43 seconds on his podium rivals but that’s a time-loss that won’t bother him at all.
So spare a thought for Lieuwe Westra who was an example of why it isn’t over until you cross the white line in Paris. He spent the morning in the sunshine as the celebrations went on around him, ambling his way towards Paris at a pace that even I could keep with, but when the racing got hot the German was shelled out the back, suffering from an illness contracted during his trip through the Alps, the finish coming a day too late. The Champs-Élysées had become his boulevard of broken dreams. He fell back and abandoned. 3,354 kilometres completed, a mere 38 left to go. He goes home a DNF, albeit one who technically still made it to Paris.
The race went on. The usual small break went clear but never got more than a few seconds up the Avenue before eventually being reeled in just in time for the sprinters to have their moment … their reward for suffering over the mountains to make it here.
And for the first time in years it really was a showdown of the best sprinters in the world. Mark Cavendish looking to win for a fifth straight time on this stage, Marcel Kittel looking to make it four stage wins, Andre Greipel looking for his second, and Peter Sagan hoping to do what Cavendish did last in 2011 and win into Paris with the Green jersey on his shoulders.
It looked good for Cavendish all through that last lap. His team took to the front as the bunch swept through the tunnel under the Louvre. His leadout train were well set, but then on the inside came their nemesis, Argos-Shimano. Kittel was being set up in a way that only Cavendish normally is in Paris and when the Omega Pharma Quickstep rider on the front of the race swung off, Gert Steegmans wasn’t there to take it up. As they swept into the Place de la Concorde, Steegmans noticing he was tucked on someone elses wheel, moved aside and Cavendish was left to take it on himself. By now Argos-Shimano had seized control and blazed through that final forty-five degree corner like the trains of Cavendish normally do. His rivals had learned how he did it and were now employing it against him. Kittel was second wheel as he got the sling shot out of the corner towards the line. From that point he was on the front.
That’s how Cavendish has won it four times, but this time he was having to come from behind, on the inside, 150 metres from the line with Kittel and Greipel already in front of him. No bother to a pre-2013-Tour version of Cavendish. There was time for the second kick that would drive him past for the win, but the kick wasn’t there. He couldn’t get past Greipel never mind Kittel and the young German took his forth stage victory in this Tour cementing himself as the new fastest sprinter in the sport.
It won’t sit easy with Cavendish but rest assured he’ll bounce back. In 2014 his ‘train’ should be better polished and with the addition of his old leadout man, Mark Renshaw, they could be ready to deliver him to his fifth Paris victory, but for now there’s a new kid on the block and there’s multiple sprint trains to overcome.
All that was left was the prize presentations and what a show the Tour and Paris put on. The Arc de Triomphe was lit up like never before. Light video’s, digital fire works, and shining Yellow as Chris Froome took to the podium to recieve his final Yellow jersey, surrounded by past five time champions, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain. Other five times winner, Jacques Anquitel is dead, and former seven times winner turned no-times winner, Lance Armstrong was the uninvited ghost hovering over it.
“This is one yellow jersey that will stand the test of time,” said Froome at the end of his eloquent and pre-prepared podium speech. And with that, we hope for Froome’s sake and sanity, the ghost of Armstrong past — which he was clearly referencing — was exorcised and the partying could begin.
What a Tour, what a finale, and what am I going to do now?