It was the youngest riders who injected the 99th edition of the Tour de France with much of its excitement.
While Bradley Wiggins gave the British their first Tour winner, it was two of the youngest cyclists — 23-year-old Tejay van Garderen of the US and 22-year-old Peter Sagan of Slovakia — who dominated the competitions for the white and green jerseys.
Meanwhile, top-10 finisher Thibaut Pinot, also 22, raised French hopes that they have finally found a rider capable of ending their near three-decade drought in their own race.
Van Garderen finished his second Tour in fifth place to win the white jersey, given to the best rider 25 or younger. He captured the jersey in the race’s opening prologue and surrendered it only for two stages, to 25-year-old Rein Taaramae of Estonia.
Van Garderen’s fifth place is the best finish by an American on the Tour since Lance Armstrong’s third place in 2009.
In his first Tour last year, Van Garderen became the only US rider to ever wear the polka-dot jersey given to the race’s best mountain climber.
That, as well a fifth place in last year’s Tour of California, caught the eye of BMC Racing, the team of last year’s yellow jersey winner Cadel Evans. BMC hired the young American for this season to help shepherd Evans in the mountains, blocking the wind and fetching water bottles.
In the end, the protege outshone the master, not only in the mountains, but also in each of the race’s three time trials.
Demonstrating the combination of mountain climbing and time trialling prowess that marks a potential Tour champion, Van Garderen built his victory with dominating performances in the race against the clock. He lost only 10 seconds to four-time world champion Fabian Cancellara in the opening prologue in Liege, Belgium, and finished nine seconds behind Cancellara in the 41.5km time trial on July 9.
While the humble and polite, Van Garderen denied there was any “passing of the torch” between himself and Evans after he overtook his team leader just before the halfway mark on Saturday in a symbolic moment, eventually finishing 3 minutes, 20 seconds faster than the Australian.
Van Garderen has set his sights on the Tour’s top rung, but probably not next year.
“That’s what I hope, that I can go for the white jersey one more year, and in a couple years maybe I’ll be on a higher step,” Van Garderen said.
Sagan won the sprinters’ competition in similarly dominating fashion, capturing the green jersey in the second stage and never giving it up. He finished with a 141-point margin over the next rider, Andre Greipel, a 30-year-old German nicknamed “The Gorilla.”
Sagan did it in style, celebrating each of his three stage wins with crowd-pleasing finish-line salutes that included an Incredible Hulk-style muscle flex and a “Run Forrest, Run” tribute to Forrest Gump.
Along the way, Sagan consistently beat some of the best sprinters, including world champion Mark Cavendish, last year’s green jersey winner. He is the youngest to win the jersey since Belgium’s Willy Planckaert in 1966.
“I’m happy to finish on the Champs-Elysees, I was second and it was the world champion who beat me,” Sagan said after the race, “I surprised myself.”
Five stage wins and two riders in the top 10 made this year’s Tour one of best in recent years for French riders. Even better for French cycling fans is that one of the riders responsible for that haul was the youngest rider in the race, Thibaut Pinot.