Back in October, when this year's Tour de France route was unveiled, everyone knew the podium race would be set at the top of Mont Ventoux.
Stage 20 finally arrived Saturday, and while I don't want to say it was anticlimactic, the famed mountain's characteristics might have prevented the riders from doing what they normally would do on other climbs in the Tour.
Let's take a look:
Tactics, wind and Lance
The goal for Saxo Bank was not to win the stage but to have Andy Schleck help lead brother Frank to a podium spot (Frank was fifth overall heading into Saturday's stage). In the end, Andy wound up doing 70 percent of the work on the final climb, and overall leader Alberto Contador rode his wheel the entire time, not having to exert as much energy as a pace setter.
Maybe it would have been better if Andy had gone out ahead of everyone, attacked and tried to win the stage. Maybe Contador would have gone with him, and there would have been a duel at the finish. But each rider sacrificed Saturday; Andy continually looked out for his brother, and Contador was looking out for Astana teammate Lance Armstrong.
And while Andy did look out for his brother by initiating small jab attacks up the climb of Mont Ventoux, Frank couldn't distance himself from Armstrong. First, there was the wind. If you're riding up Ventoux, you're almost always going to have wind. Every time I've raced up Ventoux, there's been some kind of wind (that's why I was shocked to find almost perfect conditions when I rode the route Monday).
If you break away, you have to break from the bottom of the climb. Otherwise, once you climb, there's no blocking the wind, even with the large crowds along the route. And the more wind you have, the harder it is to attack. It neutralizes things a bit.
But Saxo Bank manager Bjarne Riis told me before the stage, "Wind or no wind, we have to try." And from the feed zone, where the team took over, until the end of the stage, Saxo Bank tried.
Since you're never going to crack Armstrong mentally (few people in the world are mentally stronger than he is), you're left trying to crack him physically. And because those little jab attacks from Andy and Frank were effective during Stage 17, the last in the Alps, they tried the same tactic Saturday.
There also seemed to be some communication going on between Armstrong and Frank during the climb. Now, I don't know what was said, but those exchanges are nonverbal most of the time and part of the mental game. The translation of a glance from Armstrong or any time he matched a mini-attack: "Is that all you got? I'm up. I'm game."
But there was one big difference between Stages 17 and 20: the grind wasn't the same. There was just one big climb Saturday, compared to three or four in Stage 17. Mentally, during Stage 17, you tell yourself you have a few more days to try to gain time in the overall classification; during Stage 20, you know that once you get to the top of the mountain, it's over.
Proportionally, Frank was not much stronger than Armstrong during Stage 20, given all of the conditions. Still, it was great to see how things shaped up in the overall standings. It could have been better, of course; I am biased toward Frank and would have liked to have seen him on the podium with Andy, who will officially finish second overall Sunday. But there was only one spot open, and Armstrong deserved it after his ride Saturday.
It was great to see Saxo Bank attack throughout the race, trying to make a difference. Heading into the Tour, Astana seemed almost unbeatable, and it was (if Levi Leipheimer hadn't crashed out of the Tour, Astana would have been more powerful). But Saxo Bank went for it and did the team proud.
As for Armstrong, he might never have won a stage on Mont Ventoux, but defending his third-place spot on the famed mountain was a win in itself. While I don't think he was any stronger Saturday than he has been throughout the race, there was no way he was going to get dropped during Stage 20, especially since there was just one big climb in the route. With so much on the line, it would have been difficult to crack him.
He was out of the sport for more than three years and will stand on the podium in Paris after just nine months of training and racing. It's amazing.
When I rode the Stage 20 route Monday, there already were people camping out at the famed Ventoux climb. I asked them whether they were staying through Saturday, and they said yes. And these folks were parked about six and a half miles from the finish. There was no way they were leaving that spot to go down the mountain to get food or drinks. That is some serious commitment. And these are normal folks, a mom-and-pop type crowd showing their support for the riders.
This is what makes cycling unique -- fans can literally reach out and touch their heroes. And it's not a negative thing. Sometimes fans get in the way and might cause a crash, but they don't mean to. They've been out in the sun or they've had a few "beverages," but it's all good-natured. Fans are just passionate. On Saturday, the crowds seemed less unruly compared to those at other climbs (sometimes you can't hear yourself think as you pass them); they were just out to support the riders along a historic route.
Garmin-Slipstream's Bradley Wiggins put in a heck of a ride Saturday. He held on to fourth overall after being challenged by the Schlecks, Contador and Armstrong up Mont Ventoux.
When one of the Schlecks made an acceleration up the climb, there were a few times when it looked like Wiggins would be dropped for good. But Wiggins dug deep. Given how hard the Ventoux can be, if you're Wiggins, you have to keep telling yourself, "There's no way those guys are going to keep up that fast pace the rest of the climb. They'll slow up, and I'll catch them." Then, you try to get into a rhythm and catch the wheel.
Mont Ventoux is in your face all the time. Wiggins and the other top riders wanted to be there; they weren't giving up. I know everyone says fourth place is the worst place to be in the Tour. But I know the riders who will finish fifth through last would sign on the dotted line for the fourth spot.
Wiggins impressed a lot of people with his riding. He will be remembered for this result.
Next up: Paris
Remember how I told you I would never say never when it comes to the Tour? Well, there is another thing I thought I'd never get to do again since my last Tour in 2005, and that's ride along the Champs-Élysées on the final day of cycling's biggest race.
For a blue-collar sport, cycling sure receives the red-carpet treatment in Paris. It's the best moment of the Tour. Remember, the Tour is one of only three times during the year when Paris shuts down that road, and you have it all to yourself. (You don't get the magnitude of that until you see the road opened up again the next day. Tons of traffic; it's the main artery in Paris.)
But at 8 a.m., I will ride the road with a few Saxo Bank executives before the race rides into town later in the day. I never thought I'd get to do it again, but voila! It's quite the honor. While it will be serious business for the riders (the circuit is very difficult), you still feel the magic if coming into the city. I hope all young American riders watch Sunday and aspire to have that ride into Paris as their ultimate goal.
Check back Sunday afternoon, as I'll have a Tour wrap-up after the final stage.
Bobby Julich will be providing analysis for ESPN.com throughout the Tour de France. He retired from pro cycling in 2008 and is currently the technical director for Team Saxo Bank. The American finished third overall in the 1998 Tour and won the Paris-Nice race in 2005.