I love the Tour de France, but 3:30 a.m. starts on the West Coast are beyond me (hell, who am I fooling, 9:30 a.m. starts are beyond me -- sleeping in is a big reason I became a sportswriter). So I tape the Tour segments each day and watch them at night, scrupulously avoiding any news of the Tour until my viewing.
So after looking forward for weeks to Stage 17 on L'Alpe-d'Huez -- the iconic route is the Yankee Stadium of cycling, if, that is, Yankee Stadium allowed its fans on the field and competitors were forced to weave through them a la Chris Chambliss -- I taped the six hours of the stage and then rode my bike to the Mariners game, secure in the knowledge that I would hear no mention of the Tour at a baseball game. Naturally, within minutes of sitting down, I looked up to the out-of-town scoreboard, where (for some reason that I can only assume was a personal assault) the scores were momentarily cleared for a news update that Carlos Sastre has won stage 17.
Thanks to doping scandals, the Tour that ended Sunday began more than three weeks ago without a single rider who had ever worn the yellow jersey in Paris. Last year's winner (Alberto Contador) and top American hopeful Levi Leipheimer (third place last year) were absent because their new team, Astana, was banned from the games because of previous doping scandals. And four riders were dropped during this year's Tour, including Stages 6 and 9 winner Riccardo Ricco, for positive tests.
The oh-so-subtle headline in one of my local papers read: "Carlos Sastre Wins Doping-Scarred Tour.''
Yet I don't feel this year's Tour was scarred. Now, last year's Tour -- when race leader Michael Rasmussen was forced out in one scandal while challenger Alexander Vinokourov was banned after a failed blood test -- that was scarred as badly as a burn victim. This year was not. If more athletes are caught doping in cycling than in other sports, it is in large part because the sport tests so strenuously. And the cheats aside, this year's Tour provided gripping moments and hope for the future.
Five riders began the L'Alpe-d'Huez stage within a minute of the lead. Among them were prerace favorite, Cadel Evans, who failed to become Australia's first Tour champ, finishing second overall again when he had too little left in his legs at the time trial (but he did have a cause, as some alert viewers noticed). Luxembourg's Frank Schleck wore the yellow jersey at the start of Stage 17 but it was his younger brother, Andy, who was the top young rider and showed such power in the mountains that he will be a favorite to win the Tour in future years. Then there was Sastre. Age 33 and in perhaps his final year as a serious contender, he broke away on the mountain to take the yellow jersey and held onto it with a career performance in the final time trial.
For sheer thrills, though, it's hard to top South African John-Lee Augustyn, who led the Tour over the highest road in France a day earlier, only to misjudge a curve on the descent and go flying over a cliff. Fortunately he was unhurt, though his bike was lost far down the mountain. Unfortunately, the video has been taken down from YouTube (though Versus quite wisely showed it about 114 times).
Perhaps best of all, the Garmin-Chipotle team (aka Slipstream) -- an America-based team dedicated to riding clean with a very comprehensive, self-administered drug testing program -- performed far better than anyone expected. Maybe the worst days of doping are behind the sport. And the refreshing Christian Vande Velde rode well enough to fuel hope of an American win before finishing fifth and providing optimism for a U.S. victory next year.
The three weeks of the Tour went too quickly, and it's a long year before it resumes next July. As always, I'll miss my favorite broadcaster in all sports (non-ESPN division, of course), Bob Roll (aka Bobke). Bobke seemed a trifle restrained during the Tour -- did some corporate gnome order him to pronounce the Tour de France correctly? But the man who once described Lance Armstrong as "the eye of the hurricane and he's headed straight for the Jan Ullrich trailer park" came up with a classic ramble during Stage 19, when he called breakaways from the peloton a metaphor for life, likening them to difficulties faced by someone stepping outside the human tribe, with additional references to the primordial ooze.
Terry Bradshaw never says anything like that.
The Tour is over, and there is only one way to survive the 11 long months before the next Tour. I just ordered the 12-hour video of the 2003 Tour, which should last me a couple of weeks on the trainer. After that, I'm not sure what to do, though I hope I don't get so desperate that I rent "American Flyers" again.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.