The last stage of the Tour de France is designed to make you forget all those times that Grand Tour cyclists come off like persnickety bitches. It's a day of good feelings. A gentleman's agreement obtains whereby no one attacks the yellow jersey, and there's champagne to sip along the first few kilometers — even for those driving the team car, apparently. There are sweeping helicopter shots of the riders as they vibrate in circles along the Champs-Élysées cobblestone. The overall effect is as if a lot of freakishly skinny Spandex enthusiasts decided to throw themselves a parade.
Cadel Evans is your winner, having locked up the championship in the penultimate stage, when he outran his two closest competitors, Frank and Andy Schleck. We've never seen a rider quite like Evans. He is the Tour's first Australian champion and — in a testament to the enduring blue-bloodedness of the event — the first champion from the Southern Hemisphere. The 34-year-old is also the oldest winner in 88 years. There was something in his victory for everyone to appreciate. Even the notoriously monolingual Spaniard Alberto Contador rode with Evans to stammer congratulations.
With the overall champion decided, the only action in the final stage had to come from the sprint specialists. There was unexpected nuance to the sprinting in this year's Tour, but in the end it made for soft drama amid the dominance of Mark Cavendish, the "Manx Missile" (enough with the nicknames already!). Cavendish built a team around owning this race-within-a-race, and a victory for him in the final stage (and thus in the green-jersey competition) was almost as much a foregone conclusion as the overall championship was for Evans. Forgive the ham-fisted analogy, but for other sprinters — José Joaquín Rojas, André Greipel, Thor Hushovd — facing Cavendish's unflappable team from San Luis Obispo, HTC-Highroad, was a bit like Craig Ehlo going one-on-five against the '92 Bulls. (Actually, fuck if I know. I'm here to write about bikes).
Maybe it was all the anti-climax that drained the awards ceremony of any vigor. There was certainly all the usual pomp and circumstance — perfectly groomed podium girls, teary champions, over-styled outfits. etc. But something was missing. Evans thanked the crowd in passable French, draped the Australian flag around his shoulders, then got a little teary when Aussie musical theater star Tina Arena was teleported in for the national anthem. If you weren't an Aussie, the sight of Evans on the podium was a little short on emotional juju. Why? A clue is in the somewhat bloodless response of Andy Schleck, whose passion as an athlete tends to butt up against his aptitude as a robotic strategist. When asked what he would change about the Tour — a race in which he finished second, remember — he said: "Nothing. It was perfect." But, um, Andy, you almost won. What of the poetry of the Tour — all of that "yellow jersey gives you wings" shit, the "21 steps to heaven," the artful old Europe joie de freaking vivre? Schleck's graceful congratulations was more like the faint displeasure of a mathematician staring at a failed equation: "Only one can win, and that's Cadel."
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.