PARIS (AP) — Alberto Contador won his third Tour de France in four years Sunday, heralding the arrival of a new cycling superstar even as seven-time champion Lance Armstrong finished the race for the last time.
The 27-year-old Contador, a Spaniard, sealed the victory after holding off a challenge from main rival Andy Schleck of Luxembourg in Saturday’s individual time trial. Their battle for the title provided a glimpse of what should become the Tour’s next great rivalry. They raced wheel to wheel until separated in Stage 15, when Schleck’s chain broke on a climb in the Pyrenees, then again on a lung-busting duel up the Col du Tourmalet that was the highlight of the race.
“I suffered to get this result,” said Contador, before hoisting the victor’s cup with Paris’ Arc de Triomphe in the background. “I don’t have words to express what I feel.”
Schleck finished 39 seconds back, and Denis Menchov of Russia was third overall.
Armstrong completed his last Tour in 23rd place, 39:20 after Contador, his former teammate and rival. His disappointing, crash-filled result was a far cry from the American’s third-place finish in 2009 on his return from a four-year retirement.
Mark Cavendish of Britain claimed his fifth stage victory this Tour and 15th in his career in a sprint at the end of the 20th and final stage — largely a ceremonial 63.7-mile course from Longjumeau to Paris.
Contador exchanged hugs with his Astana teammates, who began chanting, “Ole, ole, ole, ole,” on the Champs-Elysees, where thousands of fans lined the route to cheer the cyclists. He now joins Greg LeMond, Louison Bobet and Philippe Thys as a three-time Tour champion.
Armstrong is the most successful Tour rider with seven consecutive wins, between 1999 and 2005. His last ride in his beloved race began in controversy and ended under a cloud of suspicion, following accusations by former teammate Floyd Landis that Armstrong used performance-enhancing drugs to win.
Landis was stripped of his 2006 Tour title after a positive test and later admitted doping. His allegations against Armstrong and others helped launch a federal investigation. Armstrong has never tested positive and, as he has in the past, again denied any involvement in doping.
On Sunday, his RadioShack team temporarily was barred from starting for wearing an improper jersey — and the race started about 15 minutes late as a result.
TV images showed Armstrong and his teammates putting on normal jerseys with their correct race numbers after they tried to wear a black jersey with “28” on the back. The figure was chosen to honor 28 million people fighting cancer, one of the themes Armstrong’s Livestrong Foundation focuses on.
But International Cycling Union officials said Armstrong and his RadioShack teammates had to change their jerseys and wear the official race numbers, according to UCI rules.
Contador sipped champagne during the leisurely ride and held up three fingers to signal his third Tour win. His Astana team was prepared to quash any attempt by Schleck to break away Sunday — and they had a playful ride.
Near the end, Contador, who is known as “El Pistolero” for his trademark finger-firing gesture, took a blue plastic squirt gun and sprayed photographers.
But very little about this tour could be called fun.
The July 3 prologue in Rotterdam began with rain-splattered and oil-slickened roads that brought down at least half the pack. In Stage 3, the drama took a treacherous turn over bone-jarring cobblestone patches, including one that punctured Armstrong’s tire and dealt an early blow to his title hopes in a stage in which his experience was expected to give him a leg up.
Not even halfway through the race, the two-man show between Schleck and Contador emerged, when they finished ahead of the other pre-race favorites as the Tour left the Alps.
The decisive endgame of their battle began in Stage 15, when Schleck launched an attack on Contador on the Port de Bales ascent in the Pyrenees.
The Luxembourg rider’s chain came off, he pedaled with no response from his bike, and the Spaniard sped ahead — taking the yellow jersey off of Schleck and gaining 39 seconds on him. That would become his margin of overall victory.
Some cycling aficionados cried foul, saying Contador had broken the sport’s unwritten code about not taking advantage of unlucky breaks a rider can’t control, especially when he was wearing yellow.
Schleck took one more run at Contador in Stage 17, on a breakaway up Col du Tourmalet. The Spaniard ultimately yielded the stage win but never strayed far from Schleck’s rear wheel during the grueling climb, setting the stage for one last fight.
It came Saturday, when Schleck rode what he called the time trial of his life. But it wasn’t enough to close the gap on Contador, who excels in the discipline. They were unrivaled in the climbs, but the time trial proved Schleck will need to get better racing against the clock if he hopes to beat Contador one day.
“This year, it didn’t work. I have a rendezvous in one year with that color there,” Schleck said, pointing to Contador’s yellow shirt. “I am better than last year because then it was 4 minutes,” he added of his deficit to the Spaniard as runner-up a year ago.
With his victory, Contador became only the second rider in the past 20 years of Tour history to win the race without a single stage victory — a sign he’s increasingly following Armstrong’s methodical approach to Tour success. They were uneasy teammates on Astana last year.
Armstrong’s hopes of victory collapsed in Stage 8, when he was caught up in three crashes, including one at about 40 miles an hour on a roundabout in which his body skidded on the ground and turned over.
Struggling on subsequent climbs, Armstrong said his luck, which kept him nearly crash-free during his reign of Tour domination, had run out, and he solemnly said at the time, “My Tour is finished.”
Alessandro Petacchi of Italy captured the green jersey given to the race’s top sprinter. He was second in the 20th stage, just ahead of Julian Dean of New Zealand.
Anthony Charteau of France won the polka-dot jersey as the best climber, Schleck takes home the white jersey for being the best young rider for a third straight year, and the RadioShack squad won the team competition.
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