|Final Golden Hams|
- Lance Armstrong (United States Postal Service presented by Berry Floor). Watching Lance this year was like watching the classic old Sean Connery version of James Bond. The Connery Bond was never a superman who gave you the feeling that victory was inevitable. When in a fight, that Bond would get kicked around a bit, make mistakes, and let you see him sweat. He was human, just a man who scraped through by the skin of his teeth because of his training, toughness, and tactical savvy. In the face of foes who seemed much more powerful and in control, he found a way to win. Lance was mortal this year: he bonked, he made mistakes, and he crashed a few times. He got dropped by his rivals several times, and had to reach deep down into his character to muster the strength and toughness to claw back the time his opponents had gained. In the end he won his fifth Tour due to his team, his determination, and his ability to produce just one good day. He showed what it takes to be a legendary champion: the ability to muster all available resources and strategies to win in spite of not being at his strongest. Lance is now officially one of the greatest cyclists to ever throw his leg over a bike, and that greatness was most clearly on display this year on the roads of France. His greatness is a greatness of character and intelligence, not just of power. And I wouldn't bet against him coming back to take his sixth next year.
- Jan Ullrich (Bianchi). Some talk about him in terms of being the great challenger to five-time champ Armstrong, but I get annoyed with that characterization of "RoboJan." He's much greater than that: he is a true champion, the winner of the '97 Tour and the '99 Vuelta. He has come back from a rough personal and professional crisis, and now he has a knee that actually doesn't hurt for the first time in years. He's a monster in the time trials, as he showed when he won the Stage 12 time trial by 1' 36". He has rediscovered his climbing legs, as he showed in the Pyrenees. He has retained his class and noble bearing, as he showed when Armstrong crashed on the Luz-Ardiden. Ullrich is for my money one of the greatest to ever throw his leg over a bike, and I think he will win another Tour or three before he retires. With the likelihood that Armstrong will hang it up after next year, this means that Jan's toughest competition will be gone, and remember, Jan is only 29 years old…he'll probably ride the Tour three to five more times. Jan is now a healthy, focused family man who is better than he has ever been. He'll win the Vuelta this year, and then he'll be back to give Armstrong hell again next July. I, for one, cannot wait.
- Alexandre "The Great" Vinokourov (Telekom). Vinokourov's year has been marked by both tragedy and triumph, but he came into this race as Telekom's forgotten man. Then he took this race by storm, attacking like crazy for the first two weeks and going into the final big mountain stage only 18" behind Armstrong. He faded in the last week, but Vino was such an aggressive and powerful rider in the first two weeks that he easily held off Hamilton for the final spot on the podium. He is a class act and a wonderful rider who truly earned his 3rd on GC. He has once again proven his ability to ride a grand tour as a leader, and hopefully his team will remember this in the future.
- Tyler "Nails" Hamilton and Team CSC. Three stage wins, the Teams Competition, 4th, 9th, and 13th on GC… CSC had a brilliant ride this year, and as a team showed amazing character as they fought back from adversity and attacked this race. They had men in every major break, and they rallied around Hamilton after he cracked his collarbone to provide the Tour with one of its truly legendary performances. 4th on GC with a fractured collarbone is mind-boggling, but Hamilton and his team have taken their successes with humility and class. In the face of ignorant sniping and attacks on their character, they refused to lash back with their mouths and simply kept riding their race. Bjarne Riis is a great director, and he has assembled a brilliant team. Here's hoping he can keep the boys together for another run at the Tour next year.
- Joseba Beloki (ONCE-Eroski). This Tour has to be classified as a disaster for ONCE as far as results go, but I think Beloki learned a lot about himself on the roads of France before he crashed out. He was riding like a true challenger for the Yellow Jersey, overcoming years of wheel-sucking to take the initiative and attack every chance he got. His aggressiveness cost him when he overcooked that corner and crashed, but Beloki will be back next year to continue his drive to take that top spot on the podium. He just has to stay aggressive and remember how he put Armstrong under pressure… and maybe learn a lesson from Jan Ullrich and not talk so much before the Tour starts.
- "Mad" Bradley McGee and Baden Cooke (FDJeux.com). The new leaders of the Aussie Sprint Mafia had a great Tour. McGee won the prologue and held the Yellow Jersey for three days. Cooke won Stage 2 and held the Green Jersey for most of the race. He gave up the Green to fellow Aussie, "Rabid" Robbie McEwen (Lotto-Domo) on Stage 18, but Cooke rallied today to take a 1st and 2nd in the intermediate sprints and a 2nd on the finish line, just ahead of 3rd placed McEwen. This was enough to give Cooke a narrow 2 point victory in the Points competition, and he got to mount the podium as the victor with the final Green Jersey. These two young riders will only get better, and they should be livening up the roads of the Tour for quite a while.
- Denis Menchov and iBanesto.com. What a great Tour for iBanesto.com. Juan Antonio Flecha and Pablo Lastras won stages from long breakaways, and Francisco Mancebo took 10th on GC in Paris. To top it off, Denis Menchov ran off and hid in the Youth classification, winning it by over 42'. They have yet to find a sponsor for next year, but with such a great performance, that should prove to be a relatively easy problem to solve.
- Quickstep-Davitamon. His Royal Majesty, King Richard Virenque took another Polka-Dot Jersey, won a stage, and held Yellow for a day. He couldn't have done it without the fierce attacks and solid riding of Paolo Bettini and Michael Rogers, who gave up their own aspirations to help their team leader. While their Belgian rivals from Lotto-Domo came up with zilch, Servais Knaven took a brilliant stage win to seal Quickstep's great Tour in the final week. All in all, this was a great grand tour performance by a team that is usually associated with the Classics.
- Jean-Patrick Nazon (Jean Delatour). I still think it was a mistake to invite Jean Delatour to the Tour. The only rider on the team who did anything worth mentioning was their fine sprinter Nazon. Even though they didn't support him well, Nazon took Yellow for a stage and today won the final sprint on the Champs Elysees. The fact that his team sucks so much only highlights how exceptional Nazon's achievements in this Tour really were.
- "The Notorious VHP," Victor Hugo Peña (United States Postal Service presented by Berry Floor). His great ride in the prologue put him in position to take Yellow after the team time trial. He was the first Colombian to ever wear Yellow, and he held the Jersey for three days. Despite his great ride, Peña never let his Yellow Jersey go to his head; he continued to ride for the team getting water and working for Armstrong. Peña's strength was a key to Postal's victory: he was a hammer in the team time trial, and he helped control the race on the flats. VHP is a class act, and it was a joy to see his great work over the years finally get the recognition it deserves.
- The United States Postal Service presented by Berry Floor. I've already talked about Armstrong and Peña, but the whole US Postal team was awesome this year. How awesome? US Postal held the Yellow Jersey after sixteen of the twenty-one days of racing in this Tour. After the Team Time Trial on Stage 4, only Virenque managed to wrest Yellow from Postal…and that was for just one day. George "Big Rig" Hincapie, Jose Luis "The Punisher" Rubiera, Manuel Beltran, Pavel Padrnos, Viatcheslav "The Pensioner" Ekimov, Roberto "Spanish Fly" Heras, and "Pretty Boy" Floyd Landis were on the front of the race setting the pace and putting the hurt on their rivals for most of the Tour. Whenever Lance needed his boys, they were there. They won the Team Time Trial and controlled the race with perfect skill. They earned the Yellow Jersey collectively, and deserve to go down as one of the strongest tour teams of all time.
Crazy Jane's Jambons Délicieux - Stage 20
So ends the most exciting tour in years, and let me tell you all that something délicieux happened in Paris today my dear readers... in fact, to kick this off, I am going to have to mention Paris first. What a beautiful city. The blur of color and speed streaming through wide, tree-lined avenues and along the Champs Elysees toward the Arc de Triomphe is a perfectly beautiful finish for an amazing race.
Le Tour de France is 100 years old, and Paris is older still; both Paris and this race have seen a century's worth of trials and triumphs, suffering and joys. I'm struck by the sense that the Tour de France is both ephemeral and constant: each running it's own epic saga, brief and self-contained; but that it's also a longer story. Year after year, though the faces change, the race goes on, a continual testament to the richness of the human spirit, not unlike the beauty of Paris itself, but written with muscle, sinew and will. That the Tour de France finishes in one of the world's most beautiful cities with a blur of color and speed, the cheers of the crowd, and the knowledge of how all of these men suffered and scraped for this sublime moment is the very essence of délicieux. I am definitely feeling the love, my friends, and Paris is more beautiful than ever on the third weekend in July.
It's also délicieux that a Frenchman, and one from the Jean Delatour team, no less, was victorious today. Jean-Patrick Nazon's win on the Champs Elysees is the perfect finish to this mind-bogglingly brilliant edition of Le Tour de France, and a huge victory for the race itself, an as much as I love Mario Cipollini, I think it might be time for the Lion King to have a nice dish of humble pie. At the same time, Baden Cooke scored a big one for the délicieux-factor, beating out his countryman Robbie McEwen by just a hair to take second and Green in Paris. Phew!
The Délicieux Top Ten:
1. Lance Armstrong - It was especially délicieux to see Lance on the Champs Elysees, in yellow again, and led by his faithful crew, after all the struggles he's faced in the centennial Tour de France. Armstrong looked joyful today, and he should be - he's been tested, and had the strength to prevail, and he has earned his place in tour history. One of the greatest pleasures of this Tour de France has been the way the emotions played across Armstrong's face before giving way to sunny weather in the last week. He's been vulnerable this year, he's doubted himself and been humbled, and in response to that, he's shown a warmth and a generosity of spirit that have made him seem less like steely perfection and well-oiled machinery, and more like rough-hewn virtue; his strength less mysteriously god-like, and more rooted in what it means to be no more and no less than a man. Winning the Tour de France five consecutive times is an accomplishment that needs no qualification, but as high as he has risen, Lance Armstrong has also been laid lower than many of us can imagine. He is a remarkable creature; an inspiration and an example to us all. On top of that, sweet jesus, is he ever hot.
2. Jan Ullrich, Armstrong's worthy opponent, looked happy today, too; and as usual, was graceful and sportsmanlike in defeat, calling Lance a great champion and vowing to return next year ready to fight. Ullrich came into this tour with something to prove, and from his first moment in the Prologue start house, looking lean, fit, and resplendent in his new colors, to a final Time Trial that saw Ullrich pick himself up off the ground, his kit torn and his nerve shaken, to re-find his tempo and finish with the best, the big German has served notice that he, too, is a great Champion. It's a credit to Armstrong that he never underestimated Jan Ullrich. It takes a real man to get up again like that, time and time again, to face a challenge that keeps narrowly eluding him, but Jan Ullrich does it with dignity and composure, showing us that sometimes a valiant defeat is as triumphant as a great victory. I can't wait to see Jan Ullrich break out those long legs and that fabulous Germanic bone structure to take the challenge to Armstrong again next year. Long may Der Kaiser reign!
3. Tyler Hamilton said, after today's stage, that "Life has it's ups and downs... It's how you rebound from them that matters. I think I've rebounded pretty well." We at the Crazy Jane's copy desk agree with that incredibly undestated and humble assessment, and have pretty much been beside ourselves with love for Tyler for three weeks now. I'm considering carrying on this column everyday for another three weeks just so I don't have to stop saying "how about that Tyler Hamilton" everyday. Now, we all know that Tyler is a small man. He's not tall, and he looks like he weighs, maybe, 98lbs, soaking wet; but let's face it, he has the big, giant heart of a lion. Tyler's ride in this tour is the stuff of legend, and his stage win was the greatest moment in the race. Tyler's phoenix-like rise from his crash on day one to 4th in the GC couldn't have been better scripted in Hollywood. He was magnificent.
4. Alexandre Vinokourov has ridden this season, the best of his career, with the heavy weight of his best friend's death on his shoulders; or, maybe more accurately, the strength of his best friend's life in his heart. Vinokourov has been inspired this year, and in addition to rounding out the podium behind the two greatest bike racers of the era, he is also the deserving winner of this year's combativity prize. Vinokourov rode like a tank in every stage of this tour. It's all a question of mettle, and over the past season, Vinokourov has shown his, and it is délicieux.
5. George Hincapie must come next, if only because he gets more votes for this distinction than any other rider. Fortunately, though, it's not the only reason to pick him. The fact is, it's no secret that he is the handsome one; but moreover, he is riding brilliantly. After a long enforced hiatus from the bike this spring, George has returned better than ever. I hope everyone's got tickets to the gun show, because I have a feeling we're going to see some real firepower in the months to come, and I would hate to be the guy staring down the barrel of Hincapie's form and motivation this fall. I predict that Hincapie will win big before the year is out, but one thing is certain: "LL Cool G" will have an army of ladies cheering him on at every turn of the pedals.
6. Jose Luis "Chechu" Rubiera - Chechu clinched a top ten placing in this classification on Luz-Ardiden when he was the man at the ready to pace a fallen Armstrong back to the group. Rubiera put out a hand to an adrenalized Armstrong as if to say, "Cool down, there, boss, we will get it," and then proceeded to drive it for all he was worth to bridge the gap. Chechu was there so many times when the chips were down, gave everything, and still managed a top 20 finish. He has a beautiful smile, too.
7. The Blue (or sometimes Gray) Train - I know, it's a Postal-heavy top 10, but my hands are tied, because Victor Hugo Peña, Viatcheslav Ekimov, Roberto Heras, Manuel Beltran, Floyd Landis, Pavel Padrnos and the aforementioned Hincapie and Rubiera are on this team, and let's face it, they won the race. Postal's blue train had a new and delightful look today on the Champs Elysees: their very délicieux US Mail grays. Everybody's going retro! They all looked especially scrumptious, smiling broadly in their Sunday best, but then again, it's tough to mess with the good looks when you're talking about a team like that. Those boys have ridden out of their skins to make sure their man wore yellow today, and he would never be the five-time Tour de France Champion he is without their unflagging support. Chapeau!
8. Alessandro Petacchi - Ok, ok... he didn't finish, but we make our own rules here at Crazy Jane Headquarters, and this sprinting Italian dreamboat made a big impact before calling it a day.
9. Iban Mayo - Good- Lookin' and fast up the hills, Mayo promises to be a podium treat for years to come, and no one here is gonna sqwak.
10. Everyone Else! It's hard to pick just 10 when there is a veritable cornucopia of charm at the ready. No one who rides the Tour de France is any kind of slouch, and the truth is, I could never pick only 10! I do want to make special mention, though, of the big blue eyes of Baden Cooke, who pulled one out brilliantly today, Denis Menchov, who looks fetching in white, and fallen heroes, Joseba Beloki, Jens Voigt, Freddy Rodriguez, and Axel Merckx, all of whom were taken from us too soon in this tour.
Finally, is there anything more délicieux than the final podium in the Tour de France? Serve up the babes, s'il vous plait! I love a main course of fit, beautiful young men (wearing lycra) who just got finished heroically demonstrating the epic beauty of the human spirit, served with attention to color and detail and garnished with the Arc de Triomphe. I guess they do know how to cook in France! This year's podium is especially beautiful and worthy, from the stature and charms of these incredible athletes and men, right down to the celeste, yellow and pink of the three leader's jerseys. I've said it before, but it bears repeating...
Le Tour de France! What's not to love?