Cycling: Centenary tour's drama complements magical celebration

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The Independent Online

Shortly after Lance Armstrong had clambered on to the podium on the Champs-Elysées to collect his final yellow jersey of the 2003 Tour, another, far more showy celebration began in honour of the race's centenary itself.

It certainly lived up to the French love of spectacle: two-and-a-half kilometres long, and re-enacting numerous highlights from the 100 years of Tour history. In fact, even without the lavish, 2,000-performer show that brought the curtain down on the centenary race, the 2003 Tour would have survived on its own merits.

True, there has been the one case of doping, for EPO - "That must have pleased race organiser Patrice Clerq, given he's said that a Tour without any positives at all would be found irremediably suspect," Libération tartly observed - but officials were at pains to point out that the as yet unknown offender was not a stage winner.

As a race, the event had more than done its predecessors proud. The last time the winner was known beyond doubt only after the Saturday time trial was in 1990, when another American, Greg LeMond, easily outstripped the Italian Claudio Chiappucci. But that was a predictable affair: Chiappucci, unlike Jan Ullrich or Lance Armstrong, was no expert against the clock and had just a five-second advantage prior to being overtaken by LeMond.

Indeed, the Tour's semi-official newspaper, L'Equipe, argued yesterday that for high drama 2003 was as good a race as the near-legendary 1989 edition, when LeMond outgunned the local favourite Laurent Fignon on the last day's time trial, winning overall by eight seconds.

Not that that year is remembered so favourably by the media: many journalists who had sneaked home the night before, assuming Fignon had won, suddenly had to face irate editors. One Spanish reporter who remained in Paris, Josu Garai of Marca, was so shocked that he recalls he "could not write a single word".

The winning margin that year was a record, but Armstrong's advantage of 1min 01sec over his arch rival, Ullrich, has been the closest call since 1996. Yet even discounting the intriguing race for the yellow jersey, this year has had much to savour.

As early as the Paris prologue, the sight of David Millar thrashing away at the pedals and trying to resolve his wonky chain-ring problems - which lost him the prologue by eight thousandths of a second - were a foretaste of the days to come.

The first week started with a mass pile-up at Meaux, affecting nearly 80 per cent of the field. The crashes continued to act as the leitmotif for the entire three weeks - from Armstrong having a near-collision with Joseba Beloki and then belting downhill, cross-country, to rejoin the race at Gap, to his overly close encounter with a freebie bag at the foot of Luz-Ardiden. Even in Saturday's waterlogged showdown in Nantes, Ullrich's yellow jersey dreams were destroyed when he skidded into haybales at a roundabout.

Even the marginally more boring stages were peppered by intrusions from the exterior: performance artists poured on to the road, one otherwise uneventful day in eastern France, and even threatened - sacré bleu! - to stop the race reaching Paris, while José Bové's supporters ambushed the Tour in a wood near Marseilles.

Best of all, though, was the fact that 100 years on, the Tour continues to be more than a simple race: its profound connections with French culture are still intact.

"What I will retain from this year's Tour," the race director, Jean-Marie Leblanc, observed "is the route, the villages, the parties and celebrations that people have and had made of the Tour, this year even more than usual - everything from bunting in houses to cows dressed up in the Tour's different maillots. The Tour is la France profonde, and the word 'centenary' has made it special, magic."

Even the race's big loser, Ullrich, second for the fifth time but closer than ever to winning, would have to agree with that.

* David Millar, who had been expected to part company with his Cofidis team, has instead signed a contract extension taking him up to 2005.

Alasdair Fotheringham writes for Cycling Weekly