One of the closest-fought Tours de France in the past 20 years lived out a dramatic finale yesterday as Alberto Contador narrowly fended off Andy Schleck in the individual time-trial to claim his third overall title.
Contador crossed the finish line in Pauillac, deep in the Bordeaux winemaking region, just 31 seconds ahead of Schleck, and – barring a near-unthinkable upheaval on today's largely ceremonial closing stage – will end the race 39 seconds ahead of his most tenacious rival.
Contador's winning margin is the fourth smallest since the Second World War, and the Spaniard's tears of relief yesterday confirmed just how desperately close it had been.
After nearly 3,500 kilometres, a single miscalculation on one corner of the 52km race against the clock, the longest time-trial for three years in the Tour, let alone a puncture or mechanical incident, would have cost Contador the Tour. As it was, the Spaniard crossed the line with a third Tour victory in four years – one of only nine riders to take a hat-trick of titles in cycling's flagship event – and his sixth consecutive title in a major stage race.
"I can't help feeling extremely emotional about this," Contador said. "The sense of release and liberation after this stage today is incredible. I really didn't feel good, I had a very bad night with an upset stomach, and felt terrible in the first few kilometres. Today was my worst day of the Tour. It was only when I got to the last part of the course that slowly I could turn things around."
In theory, it should not have been such an agonisingly narrow victory; on paper Schleck is by far the poorer time-triallist, and the Luxembourgeois had estimated that had he been in yellow, he would have needed at least a 90-second advantage over Contador before the stage to hold on.
Instead, over the most unexpected of terrains and in the most crucial moments of the 2010 Tour, a rider labelled as a climber suddenly showed a new facet to his talents, and began challenging Contador. Instead of displaying his usual ungainly style on his time-trial bike, Schleck seemed more comfortable than Contador and after 18km, a third of the pancake-flat, exposed course, had even managed to draw slightly ahead.
As the vineyards flashed by on one side of the road and the majestic River Garonne rolled past on the other, Schleck opened up an advantage of seven seconds, enough to put him within one second of reclaiming yellow. But just as it seemed the Tour was en route for its biggest upset since Greg LeMond turned the tables on Laurent Fignon in the final time-trial in 1989, Contador regained control.
Even if the gusting winds were battering his fragile 62-kilo figure more mercilessly than they were Schleck, Contador put down an increasingly steady pace. Only on one left-hand bend, when he came within inches of hitting the barriers, did it seem that he might be cutting it too fine. Finally, though, as the gap between the Tour's leader and the Best Young Rider stretched to over 20 seconds, Contador's late burst began to pay off. Schleck's shoulders were beginning to sag as he tore along the final straightaways, and at long last the rider who has dogged Contador ever since the race reached the Alps two weeks ago was forced to throw in the towel.
The two will end the 2010 Tour in the same final positions overall as they did in 2009, with Contador first and Schleck second, but such a hard-fought final duel could not have been more appropriate. For three weeks, apart from a mechanical problem for Contador over the cobbles of northern France mirrored by one for Schleck in the Pyrenees, the two riders were never more than 10 seconds apart on the climbs. "Andy has not been stronger this year," Contador claimed. "Rather I've been worse."
Today's final stage should see Mark Cavendish repeat his 2009 success on the Champs Elysées and claim a fifth win. A stunning victory on Friday in Bordeaux proved that the Manxman remains the fastest sprinter in the Tour. It is even possible he could take the green points jersey, though for that to happen the current leader, Alessandro Petacchi, will have to finish outside the top six on the stage.
On paper, that is highly unlikely. But after yesterday's near-upset in the battle for the yellow jersey it would take a brave man to make too many predictions about what will be the final outcome for the green.
Winners and losers: Borat lookalikes rule but litterbugs are rubbish
Winners: The French: Six stage wins is their best total since 1997, not to mention a victory in the King of the Mountains classification, even if their search for an overall contender continues to be fruitless.
Borat lookalikes: Never have so many men clad in funny green mankinis – and nothing much else – managed to get themselves so much TV coverage. We're not sure this is a good thing.
Starting the Tour abroad: It was three weeks ago and is almost forgotten now, but in terms of fan support Rotterdam was a huge triumph, just as Monaco succeeded in 2009, likewise London in 2007. Keep those foreign starts coming.
Andy Schleck: He has progressed enormously in the mountains and will be back next year to win the Tour. Even the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, thinks that Contador won't be able to stop him next July.
The British: Multiple stage wins for Mark Cavendish was almost to be expected, but not that seven out of eight GB starters, the most since 1968, would finish, or that there would be such a huge rise in British roadside fans. It didn't even matter that Bradley Wiggins's overall bid failed: they backed him all the way to Paris.
The anti-doping battle: Don't say it too loudly, but so far the number of positive dope tests in the Tour is precisely zero. Some may come out in the next few weeks – last year that was the case – but so far so good.
The Tour: Commanded 60 per cent of French audience shares on the key Tourmalet stage, not what the doom-merchants who predicted the race's imminent demise would like to hear.
Losers: Cadel Evans: The Aussie world champion came through the dangerous first week brilliantly, held the race lead for a day, then slowly slid out of contention. Having a broken arm might have had something to do with it.
Christian Van de Velde: American outsider who crashed out of the Tour with two broken ribs and multiple lacerations following a mega pile-up in the Ardennes. All this after abandoning the Tour of Italy for the second year running. Not a man to buy a lottery ticket from.
Frank Schleck: Andy Schleck's brother and team-mate was another outsider who might just have tipped the balance of the race in Andy's favour. But as he broke his collarbone on the cobbles of northern France, we'll never know.
Lance Armstrong: After a superb first week, his bid disintegrated in one Alpine stage as he crashed twice. Armstrong will stand on the podium as part of the top team, and racing the Tour at 38 deserves respect, but an eighth win was on the cards until he came a cropper.
Cycling litterbugs: Five Tour riders are due to be taken to court in Belgium for their (perfectly usual, if ecologically unsound) habit of throwing empty water bottles on to the roadside.