Commentary

The whole story behind this year's Tour

Updated: July 26, 2010, 12:23 PM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

PARIS -- Tempting as it may be to reduce the result of a 2,262-mile bike race to an incident involving a six-millimeter-wide chain, any Tour de France hinges on interlocking events that have to be looked at as a whole. This one is no exception.

Yes, Alberto Contador's winning margin after Saturday's long individual time trial, when hostilities generally cease between the overall contenders, was the same 39 seconds he was accused of pickpocketing from Andy Schleck the previous week. Contador attacked when Schleck suffered a mechanical incident at the worst of times, out of the saddle and leaning into a key climb in the Pyrenees. The customary diplomatic brouhaha erupted, provoking all of 24 hours of outrage.

[+] EnlargeContador/Schleck
Joel Saget/AFP/Getty ImagesAlberto Contador, left, edged Andy Schleck by 39 seconds to win his third Tour de France in four years.

Contador's mistake was not the crime but the cover-up, in which he unconvincingly claimed he hadn't seen the incident that made Schleck come to a fuming full stop. He thought better of things that evening and apologized via YouTube. The next day, Schleck told French fans to stop booing Contador already, and the two men resumed their passive-aggressive rivalry. Actual fisticuffs were the bailiwick of anonymous riders much further down in the standings.

The time gap caused by the chain sequence played into the final result, but so did Schleck's lousy prologue. On the flip side, he benefited from the mannered reaction in an early stage in Belgium after he and nearly half the peloton lost traction on greasy roads.

But arguably the most significant moment in Schleck's race was the exit of his older brother Frank due to a broken collarbone suffered on the cobblestones in Stage 3. Bike racers deal with that day's course, not the fantasy league game of what could have been, but there's little question that Frank Schleck would have changed the dynamics between his brother and Contador in every mountain stage.

Both men's teams overachieved under the circumstances. Contador's Astana squad, completely reconstituted after the mass exodus to RadioShack, supported him ably, embodied by the tireless, yellow-shod Daniel Navarro. Bjarne Riis' roster may be about to fragment with the defection of the Schlecks to a new Luxembourg-based team, but that pending divorce was not apparent at the base of the Col du Tourmalet, where Saxo Bank put numbers on the front and imposed a fearsome tempo.

In the end, on the climbs as well as on Saturday's time-trial course, everyone else fell away and all that mattered was where Contador and Schleck were in relation to each other. It was one long match race won in a photo finish.

Allan Peiper, the thoughtful Australian assistant director for HTC-Columbia who raced in five Tours, called the past three weeks "a Tour of agility" that demanded extreme adaptability from the top riders. He doesn't accept the notion that a Grand Tour shouldn't include cobblestones, a team time trial or other unusual obstacles.

"They went over the Tourmalet a hundred years ago, and the first rider who went over the top screamed out to [race founder] Henri Desgrange, 'You're murderers!'" Peiper said. "So a hundred years later, we go over it on a nicely paved road with hundreds of thousands of people by the side of the road.

"Times change, but the essence of cycling is being able to ride your bike everywhere, whether it's on cobbles or downhill or flat, or in wind or climbs or descents, and the real Tour de France rider has to be able to do that. Contador and Schleck, pure climbers, have done every terrain. They've taken the advantage on each other in different circumstances, but at the same time, a distance separating them of eight seconds [Saturday morning] is incredible after such a tumultuous Tour."

[+] EnlargeMark Cavendish
Bryn Lennon/Getty ImagesMark Cavendish won five stages in this year's Tour de France, including the final storied stage in Paris.

Others had to be agile as well. HTC's Mark Cavendish, deprived of his stellar lead-out man Mark Renshaw thanks to a heavy-handed disqualification by race organizers, won in Bordeaux and Paris in the final week to take his 14th and 15th career Tour stage wins. RadioShack, forced to abandon its podium aspirations rather precipitously in the Alps, rode for stage wins and the team classification. Garmin-Transitions, decimated by injuries, went from Plan A to B to C and was rewarded by Canadian Ryder Hesjedal's gallant seventh-place finish.

Saxo Bank's Jens Voigt further cemented his legend with an ultimate example of adaptability. Voigt crashed early in the queen stage in the Pyrenees and found himself far behind the peloton with no team car in the vicinity. Unwilling to exit a second straight Tour because of mishap, Voigt mounted the only steed that race staff had to offer at the time -- a junior-sized bike with toe clips on the pedals -- and cranked madly for about 10 miles until he was able to rejoin the stragglers in the peloton, a Kentucky Derby jockey on a Shetland pony.

Bubbling underneath this year's action is some evidence that cycling is adjusting to a new reality where doping may not be impossible but could be more impractical than it has been at any time in the past 20 years.

If the numbers sports-science gurus are crunching tell the truth, the efforts produced by riders on climbs like the Tourmalet appear to be within a reasonable physiological range. That gives rise to some hope. As of Sunday, this is the second straight Tour without a doping positive. Yet anyone who follows the sport closely can be forgiven for reserving wild celebration, at least until the World Anti-Doping Agency's independent observers file their evaluation of how cycling's governing body, the UCI, handled testing.

All the math of watts and power-to-weight ratios aside, two of the most important numbers in the 2010 Tour are 25 and 27. The first is Andy Schleck's age, which made him eligible, for the second year running, to layer the Best Young Rider's white jersey over a second-place overall finish. Contador is two years older and was unable to deliver any crushing blows this July.

Four of the past five Tours have been decided by less than a minute, and Schleck has many more years to figure out how to make up the difference.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.

Bonnie D. Ford

Enterprise and Olympic Sports
Bonnie D. Ford is a senior writer for ESPN.com.