PARIS — Alberto Contador stood atop the podium at the Tour de France on Sunday for the third time in four years, struggling to rein in his emotions as Spain’s national anthem echoed across the wide boulevard of the Champs-Elysees.
Off to one side, Lance Armstrong applauded and then, without much fanfare, headed toward the exit.
“I need a cold beer,” he said when asked his thoughts at the finish line.
Rarely has the emergence of a sport’s newest superstar dovetailed so neatly with the departure of the last one.
Contador held off a next-to-last day challenge from Andy Schleck of Luxembourg, his runner-up for a second consecutive year, draining much of the drama from the 20th and final stage. Denis Menchov of Russia was third overall.
Victoria’s Ryder Hesjedal showed he belongs with the sport’s elite, moving up one spot in Saturday’s time trial to finish seventh overall. It’s Canada’s best showing since Steve Bauer’s fourth in 1988.
Armstrong completed his last Tour in 23rd place, 39:20 behind Contador, his former teammate and rival. His crash-filled journey was a far cry from the third-place finish he posted in 2009 on his return from a four-year retirement.
Yet the sport the 38-year-old American leaves behind hardly wants for budding stars eager to lead the way.
Schleck, for one, promises he’ll win the yellow jersey one day. That promise could produce the next great Tour rivalry, but this year, it wasn’t always sporting.
The high-drama point in the race — and the low-point in their avowed friendship — came in Stage 15.
Wearing the yellow jersey, Schleck mounted an attack against Contador on a Pyrenean climb. Suddenly, Schleck’s chain came undone, and he pedalled in vain. Contador sped ahead, and by the stage finish, had taken yellow and 39 seconds on Schleck — his margin of overall victory.
Many cycling aficionados cried foul, saying Contador had broken the sport’s unwritten etiquette about not taking advantage of unlucky breaks a rider can’t control — especially when he was wearing yellow.
Some fans jeered Contador, and he later apologized on YouTube. Schleck, who was fist-swatting angry at first, eventually patched things up with his rival and urged the crowd to as well.
By the time they wheeled into Paris for the finale, the coronation trumped any lingering controversy.
“I suffered to get this result,” said Contador, before hoisting the victor’s cup, the Arc de Triomphe looming spectacularly in the background. “I don’t have words to express what I feel.”
Schleck pointed to Contador’s yellow shirt.
“This year, it didn’t work. I have a rendezvous in one year with that colour there,” he said. “I am better than last year because then it (the deficit) was four minutes.”
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 102.5-kilometre course from Longjumeau to Paris.
Hesjedal started the race as a support rider for Garmin-Transitions star Christian Vandevelde, but took the initiative after the injured American had to withdraw after two stages.
Toronto’s Michael Barry, a support rider for Team Sky star Bradley Wiggins, finished 99th overall. Spain’s Carlos Sastre was 20th to lead the Canadian-owned Cervelo team.
The 27-year-old 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.
His win added to Spain’s recent sports success — coming off its World Cup victory, and Rafael Nadal’s win at Wimbledon.
Armstrong is the most successful Tour rider ever, with his wins from 1999 to 2005. His last ride in this, his favourite 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 was temporarily 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 honour 28 million people fighting cancer, one of the themes Armstrong’s Livestrong Foundation focuses on.
But International Cycling Union officials said Armstrong and his 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 for 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.
In the first two stages after the July 3 prologue in Rotterdam, rain-splattered and oil-slickened roads 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 an advantage.
Not even halfway through the race, it was a two-man show between Schleck and Contador, when they finished ahead of other pre-race favourites as the Tour left the Alps.
They raced wheel-to-wheel in a lung-busting duel up the Col du Tourmalet in Stage 17, when Schleck couldn’t shake Contador — whose explosive climbing prowess would not be denied.
The Spaniard ultimately yielded the stage win, but never strayed far from Schleck’s rear wheel during the gruelling climb, setting the stage for one last fight.
It came Saturday, when the 25-year-old 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 unrivalled in the climbs, but the time trial proved Schleck will need to do better racing against the clock if he hopes to beat Contador one day.
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 mph on a roundabout when 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 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.