Looking back at 2011 Tour of 'firsts'

The Tour de France is so epic in scale and its grand finale in Paris so theatrical that it's always tempting to make sweeping declarations immediately afterward.

Some signature aspects of the 2011 race will be portrayed as breakthroughs -- the first champion from the Southern Hemisphere, the U.S.-based team that finally won a stage, a good showing by the home country's riders and a general sense that doping may be on the wane.

In fact, all of those developments are the product of incremental progress, not sudden leaps.

Australia's Cadel Evans was the runner-up in two of the closest Tours in history in 2007 and 2008, by a combined total of 81 seconds. Through much of his career, he has been criticized either for conservative riding -- following wheels in the mountains and waiting for his specialty, the time trial, to put the hammer down -- or for attacking at inopportune times. His quirky manner sometimes strained his interactions with the media and he seemed like the odd man out on his own teams.

It was only after Evans won the world championships in 2009 and signed with BMC that he seemed to gain in stature and ride with more visible self-belief. When he prevailed in one dramatic, rain-soaked stage in the 2010 Giro d'Italia, his proud, mud-splattered, exhausted face became his new public avatar. He seemed poised to contest a wide-open Tour last year, but a midrace injury doomed his chances.

Evans' strength, at his best, has been consistency. He was never going to launch an explosive, Alberto Contador-style attack midway up a final climb, or risk the kind of solo that Andy Schleck did in the Alps. But Evans did need to take control of this race in a way he hadn't done before. Thus, the moment that defined him was not his early stage win in Brittany or the final time trial that put him over the top, but the way he paced the contenders' group chasing Schleck on the last steeps of the Col du Galibier.

Jaw locked and eyes unreadable behind tinted goggles, Evans closed the gap to one he knew he could make up on Schleck in the time trial and dropped Contador in the process. One can argue the pursuit (initially driven by Evans' BMC teammates) should have started earlier, but there's no arguing with the outcome.

At 34, Evans is at the upper age limit for modern Tour winners. It was the cumulative experiences and mistakes of his previous six attempts that made this victory possible. Tour de France champions always have to push their limits, but with smaller gaps between contenders these days, it may be equally important for riders to know their limits as well as Evans does.

Garmin-Cervelo's successful Tour was similarly not built in a day. From its inception as an elite squad, the Colorado-based team has been stocked with excellent time-trialers. The core remained the same: David Millar, David Zabriskie and Christian Vande Velde. Garmin won the team time trial at the 2008 Giro and had come close in the discipline in Grand Tours on a couple of subsequent occasions. The addition of Thor Hushovd this season gave Garmin the finishing punch it needed to win the Stage 2 team time trial, its first Tour win.

The next day, sprinter Tyler Farrar ended his run of near-misses at the Tour and won a stage. He thanked his leadout men, who had been "chipping away" for three years at beating the best in the world, Mark Cavendish. Hushovd would go on to win two more stages and Vande Velde helped ensure that 33-year-old Tour rookie Tom Danielson stayed in the top 10, the fourth straight time Garmin has placed a different rider that high. Their efforts also secured first place in the team classification.

Zabriskie, who crashed out of the race with a broken wrist, was represented on the final podium by a life-sized cardboard cutout. His abandonment was only one in a Tour marked by an extraordinary string of agonizing incidents.

A French television car, speeding to get past a breakaway group, swerved around a roadside tree and horrifyingly struck Juan Antonio Flecha, who in turn upended the Netherlands' Johnny Hoogerland and sent him tumbling into a barbed wire fence that gashed his buttocks and legs. Hoogerland finished the stage bleeding profusely, wept while accepting the "Most Aggressive" award on the podium and became an instant legend, persevering to Paris to place 74th out of 167 finishers.

RadioShack's Chris Horner rode the last 25 kilometers of a stage with such a severe concussion that he didn't remember he had crashed (and still doesn't). Alexandre Vinokourov's Astana teammates had to half-carry him back to the road after he hurtled into a tree, breaking his leg and hip. Laurens ten Dam of the Dutch Rabobank team crashed face-first in the Alps and finished the stage with gauze wrapped around his head holding his nose in place.

But the daily face of pained exertion at the Tour was that of Thomas Voeckler, the French veteran with a vast, charming array of distressed expressions. He wore the overall leader's yellow jersey for 10 days, from the Massif Central through the Pyrenees to the highest-altitude finish in Tour history on the Col du Galibier in the Alps, and had a shot at the top three until the last weekend.

In interviews, Voeckler described how startled he was to be staying with the overall contenders, and asserted that he couldn't possibly keep the lead. Hours later, he would fight like a cornered animal to retain it. Only late in the race did Voeckler wonder aloud if he could finish on the podium, and whether he should train for that goal in the future.

Voeckler, with no experience at doing a time trial under such withering pressure, wound up less than a minute shy of Frank Schleck in fourth place. Garmin's Millar spotted him riding back to the Europcar team hotel alone after the decisive stage, his features a mask of misery. The finish was the best for a French rider since 2000. Voeckler's indispensable domestique, Pierre Rolland, won the Alpe d'Huez stage and the Best Young Rider (under-25) designation, the first Frenchman to occupy that spot since 1999, the year of Lance Armstrong's first Tour win.

Defeatism in French cycling has been much discussed since Bernard Hinault won his fifth and final Tour in 1985, notably by Hinault himself, who thinks his younger countrymen are coddled. A more widespread explanation is that national antidoping laws and testing programs implemented after the 1998 scandal centered on a French team (Festina) put the country's riders at a disadvantage in a juiced peloton.

Voeckler, 32, may have had the misfortune to lead a generation of engines who thought they couldn't, with sound if sad reasoning. Of the four other French riders who finished in the top 15, three are 25 or younger and perhaps less apt to be fatalistic about their prospects.

That leads to the question that has been the coda of every recent Tour: How clean was it? Caution is still the byword for many observers. It has been just five years since the Operacion Puerto blood doping scandal implicated several top riders; five years since 2006 Tour winner Floyd Landis, riding for the same owner and director behind the current BMC team, flunked a doping test; and four years since seven riders tested positive during the 2007 Tour and one was hauled off a mountaintop in handcuffs.

It has been three years since the introduction of the useful, but still imperfect, biological passport program. Months later, busted 2008 Tour third-place finisher Bernhard Kohl said he had been undeterred by the passport as he followed a doping protocol that included frequent transfusions. Ingrained attitudes and practices take time to be sanded out.

There has been one positive test so far, a Russian rider snagged for a diuretic masking agent, and it will be about a week before all the samples from the race are analyzed. But as fans have come to understand, positive tests alone are not an accurate gauge of doping levels.

Data from the road offers another kind of evidence. Exercise physiologists Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas, the South African and American co-writers of the Science of Sport blog, made their case in an op-ed piece in the Sunday New York Times. Based on slower times of major climbs in the Tour, even considering a host of variables, they concluded that "in the 1990s and 2000s, Tour performances routinely exceeded the predicted physiological capacity of humans. In contrast, 2010 and 2011 Tour riders have been beneath this ceiling on every climb of the race."

They also point out that those times might reflect more restrained doping as opposed to no doping at all. That's not exactly utopian, but it would represent improvement.

As things stand now, cycling could feel more of a whiplash from last year's Tour than this year's. The appeal of Contador's 2010 doping case will be heard next week, and that, along with the ongoing federal doping and fraud investigation of Lance Armstrong and his past Tour-winning teams, in turn could affect a still-fragile sponsorship environment.

RadioShack director Johan Bruyneel told Reuters early this month the sponsorship will be renewed for two more years, but the corporation has yet to comment formally. Armstrong made an uncharacteristically quiet visit to Paris this past weekend to hobnob with VIPs. Meanwhile, the most successful team in the world the past few seasons, California-based HTC-Highroad, is still scrambling to secure its financing for next year.

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.