When last we checked in with the Tour, the race had become a bar fight. Many of the big-name riders were broken. Former champ Alberto Contador was mounting suicidal climbing attacks and punching fans. The French guy was throwing tantrums. It was as if the Tour had become an enormous raw nerve. Favorite Andy Schleck emerged from Stage 19 as the overall time leader. The only thing standing between Schleck and a cruise in yellow down the Champs-Élysées, Champagne flute in hand, was an individual time trial, a no-strategy, man-against-clock burner that happens to be the specialty of the one rider who could catch him. That would be Australian Cadel Evans, a two-time Tour runner-up, who'd clung like a barnacle near the top of the leaderboard. On the eve of the stage, Schleck remained optimistic: "The yellow jersey gives you wings and I hope that is the case tomorrow." Back in Australia, a country that has never produced a Tour de France champion, they cued up a midnight simulcast and started pounding Carltons.
We're not going to lie: individual time trialing makes for lousy television. It's impossible to know who's ahead and who's behind. There's no drama and and the "skin suits" leave too little to the imagination. Due to the staggered starts that reverse the order of the overall standings, the event's most exciting specialists, like Fabian Cancellara, often are out of sight. He got stuck riding early in the morning on wet roads and didn't even show up on network coverage.
But as the Tour's leaders came into view, it was impossible not to get swept up in the stage. Low expectations produced another "suprisingly good" performance for French cyclist Tommy Voeckler — who spent 10 days in yellow and along the way became a French folk hero — and Contador sideman Sammy Sanchez (looking something like a futuristic rodeo clown in his polka "King of the Mountains" jersey) outraced Cancellara and moved up in the overall standings. Third from the end and trying to carve up Schleck's 57-second lead, Evans had this kind of emotionless I'ma-fuck-you-up air about him every time the cameras found him. We'll assume Twitter's trending topic #schleckmyballs was a bit of Australian pressure release.
To this point, the Tour had given us 19 stages of relatively indecisive racing. As Evans left the gate, it suddenly seemed over. If Evans has what one observer called a "crab-like toil" in the mountains, he's a compact and weirdly elegant time trialist. Halfway across the 42-kilometer course, Andy Schleck's lead was only five seconds. Commentator Phil Liggett often goes heavy on the drama, but when he described Evans as on his "own hunting ground," you realized the Schleck brothers — with their good strategy and fraternal hive mind — were vulnerable prey. By the time they finished the race, Evans had become the overall leader of the race by over a minute and a half — meaning he finished today's course two-and-a-half minutes faster than the Tour's frontrunner. Put on the Aussie flag Speedo and run with the devil alongside a neighborhood cyclist: Cadel Evans is the champion of the 2011 Tour de France.
"Wait," you say, "this can't be! What about tomorrow's final stage?" Sorry, but by some weird bylaw of arcane Western European gentility that no one really understands, the final stage of the Tour de France is largely a ceremonial ride. No one attacks. Champagne is drunk. Corporate sponsors are stroked. (The route takes a detour in front of the headquarters of the Crédit Lyonnais, sponsors of the yellow jersey.) The only action in tomorrow's race will be with the sprinters, who get a chance to earn some points after getting tortured in the mountains. There is no doubt that Mark Cavendish's team will flaunt its cold-eyed organization once again to get him the green jersey, but winning this final group sprint would be sweet revenge for Cavendish rival André "The Grapefruit" Greipel or for the Norwegian Thor Hushovd. Tomorrow belongs to Cadel Evans, however — the guy with the big, schlecked balls and a new pair of wings on his back.
Nate Cavalieri will write about the last few stages of the Tour de France for us. He's written for Lonely Planet and Spin and cycled across Zambia as a part of the Tour d'Afrique. Follow him on Twitter, @natecavalieri.