Maybe we can believe in the Tour again - NBC Sports

Maybe we can believe in the Tour again
This edition was thrilling, spilling - and not a doping scandal in sight
July 25, 2011, 5:07 pm

The neighbors' backyard fireworks rattled the windowpanes and the air was thick with smoke, as another set of semi-strangers flipped their blackened hockey-pucked hamburgers on a portable grill.

Normally I would've been outside with a plastic cup and matching plastic smile, nodding that yes, I'd like onions on my carcinogens, please. Instead I sat nervously at the end of the bed watching tape-delayed twentysomethings barrel toward the finish of the Tour de France's third stage.

Sprinter Tyler Farrar was about to become the first American to win a stage on the 4th of July. As he crossed the line, he raised both arms from the handlebars, gently touching the tips of his thumbs together to make a "W". The gesture was in tribute to his friend and training partner Wouter Weylandt, the promising 26-year-old Belgian who was killed during last month's Giro d'Italia.

Watching his win on Versus that night, I tried - and failed - to swallow the lump in my throat. It was an unbelievable moment and I wondered if this would be the Tour that we could - finally, hopefully - all believe in.

It was.

This year didn't make me forget about Landis or the ongoing Lance-hunt or last year's doper du jour, Alberto Contador, but it did remind me why I used to spend most of July with my nose pressed against a satellite feed from the French countryside.

If you couldn't spend the past three weeks watching grimacing men with inflated thighs - or just chose not to - then you missed what made this one of the best Tours ever:

The Wizard of Oz: After overcoming a 57-second deficit during the Stage 20 time trial -and outpacing the best efforts of Andy and Frank Schleck - Cadel Evans became the first Australian to hoist the Tour trophy and, at 34, the oldest winner since the world was still clearing away the dust from the Great War.

Evans was remarkably consistent, only falling below fourth in the standings once. He only won one stage and didn't pull on a yellow jersey until the final day, becoming the first winner since Greg LeMond in 1990 to wear the leader's kit for less than two days. (Interestingly, LeMond didn't score his primary colors until he'd earned back 50 seconds in a Stage 20 time trial).

"It's been years of hard work and there were a lot of moments in these three weeks where our Tour was lost, but to get here safely with all my skin-that alone is a quest in itself," he said on Sunday.

Alberto Can't-ador: The defending champion came into the Tour fresh from a win at the Giro d'Italia. He finished fifth, almost four minutes behind Evans. Contador's three crashes and unsuccessful mountain attack meant that, for the first time in his four Tour appearances, he'd finish without winning a single stage. Next week, he'll swap the Alps for arbitration when the World Doping Agency and the UCI appeal his appeal, again pushing for him to be suspended for testing positive for Clenbuterol during last year's Tour.

Just Say No: The Tour came to an uncontroversial, untainted end for the first time since Spain's Carlos Sastre beat, um, Cadel Evans in 2008.

He's right. Unless Evans has a number of syringes stashed in his chin cleft, this Tour will have ended in Paris instead of in a prosecutor's office, and even the most jaded of cycling fans can appreciate that. The one positive drug test belonged to Alexandr Kolobnev, a Russian nobody whose name wouldn't have been mentioned unless he careened off the road into a field of sunflowers.

On another, ahem, high note, the zero-tolerance, Straight Edge team of Garmin-Cervelo made an impressive showing, one that was more natural than the ingredients in a Royale with Cheese.

When the team was established four years ago, founder Jonathan Vaughters "said he wanted to demonstrate that it was possible to be competitive without taking performance enhancing drugs and transform the culture of a sport marred by systemic doping at the highest levels."

Vaughters made his point. Garmin-Cervelo won the Team Classification by 11 minutes over Leopard Trek. Tyler Farrar and Thor Hushovd combined to win three stages. And Tom Danielson, the highest placing American finisher (ninth) wears an argyle Garmin-Cervelo jersey too.

Leopard Trek: I'm pretty sure this is Ben Stiller's next movie.

High Manxiety: A few years ago, Nike printed t-shirts that said "My Fast is Faster", which is a 100 percent cotton fact for Mark Cavendish. The 26-year-old Englishman was the Tour's most impressive sprinter, winning five of the Tour's flattest stages, the ones that are like riding across Howie Long's haircut for 100 miles.

"Finally got my grubby little Manx mitts on the Green Jersey, he tweeted after winning a rain-slicked Stage 11. "We will try to keep it until Paris."

He did, despite the best efforts of his former teammate Andre Greipel. Their Tour-long rivalry was must-see TV, although Greipel only bested Cavendish once, edging him by an eyelash in Stage 10. "Greipel rode it perfect," Cavendish typed, adding a #hatsoff hashtag, before spending the next week and a half ensuring that the German wouldn't see anything but the back of his calves.

Vladimir Karpets: Team Katusha rider or discount rug dealer?

Crash Into Me (Or Into That House. Or That Ditch. Or.): Whether it was due to the capillary-narrow streets, the incessant rain or interference from spectators and vehicles, the first half of the Tour was littered with twisted bikes and bodies, crashes that left even the most fortunate victims dazed and staggering like spandex-wrapped extras from The Walking Dead.

The most heart-skippingly awful moment came during Stage 9, when a France T‚l‚visions driver, perhaps distracted by an errant accent mark on his windshield, sideswiped Johnny Hoogerland and Juan Antonio Flecha. Hoogerland went off the road and slammed into a barbed wire fence, tearing his shorts and his skin. Unbelivably, HE GOT BACK ON HIS BIKE and finished the stage, grinding his molars into dust while blood streamed into his shoes.

Meanwhile seven time zones away, Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler banged his knee against the dishwasher door, declared it the worst day ever and went back to bed.

I hope you watched this year and had a chance to see a strong finish from Evans, the perennial almost-er who outpaced a pair of super athletic brothers, instead of falling to another pharmaceutical-grade superman. No, one clean year won't - can't - make us forget about the past decade of speculation and disappointments. But thanks in part to Evans, to Cavendish, and to Garmin-Cervelo, we finally had a Tour worth remembering.

Jelisa Castrodale has learned a lot about life by making a mess of her own. Read more at jelisacastrodale.com , follow her on twitter at twitter.com/gordonshumway, or contact her at jacastrodale@gmail.com

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