The Associated Press
PARIS — All the right elements were there: The smiling winner in his bright yellow jersey. The fans several rows deep under the majestic trees of the Champs-Elysees.
But something seemed broken about the Tour de France on Sunday — perhaps forever.
Overshadowing the joy of its newest and youngest winner in 10 years — Alberto Contador of Spain, who rode for the American Discovery Channel team — was ominous talk and questions about the very existence of cycling’s premier event:
l How to have faith in the Tour when even its director said the suspicion of doping hangs over all riders.
l How much longer fans will remain loyal to a race where cheating has skewed the results for more than a decade.
l How to regard cycling. Is it really still a sport or just drug-fueled entertainment on wheels, where observers think “what’s he taking?” not “didn’t he ride well?”
That such conversations were taking place the same day the grueling race crowned a champion may have been unfair to Contador. But he, like everyone in cycling, has become a victim of a drug problem that burst like a long-neglected boil at this Tour, having been overlooked for too long.
“Suspicion is everywhere,” Tour director Christian Prudhomme said. “We could have doubts about everyone.”
If doping didn’t win Contador the Tour — and fans will say they have a right to ask — then it transformed the outcome sufficiently to hand him victory.
The 24-year-old rider had seemed destined for the runner-up spot until the race was hit by a bombshell just five days from the finish: the ousting of leader Michael Rasmussen. His Rabobank team accused the Dane of having lied about his whereabouts before the Tour to evade doping controls.
Contador kissed his yellow jersey on the podium and thrust his arms ecstatically, with the Arc de Triomphe in the background. Outside his Discovery Channel team bus, staffers uncorked champagne. His original goal was to take the white jersey as best young rider. In the end, he got white and yellow. His margin of victory — 23 seconds over Cadel Evans of Australia — was the second-narrowest in the Tour’s 104-year history, after 2,200 miles through Britain, Belgium, Spain and France.
“I think we’ve seen the future of Spanish cycling and perhaps international cycling,” seven-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong said, referring to Contador, the first Spaniard to win the race since the last of Miguel Indurain’s five titles in 1995.
Another Discovery rider, Levi Leipheimer of the United States, finished third, 31 seconds behind, but still good enough to join Contador on the podium.
In an odd little twist, the final 91-mile ride to Paris took the pack through the town of Chatenay-Malabry, home to the French anti-doping laboratory.
Daniele Bennati of Italy won the stage.
Discovery sports manager Johan Bruyneel, who mentored Armstrong’s wins, said inheriting the victory after Rasmussen’s ouster gave it a bittersweet tinge.
“It’s not a nice feeling. You don’t want to win like that,” he said. “The way things were, most likely he would have won the Tour de France.”
Rasmussen insisted he never used performance-enhancing drugs and was left wondering what might have been.
“Every day I’m going to wake up and think about not being allowed to win the Tour de France — the race that defines me as a cyclist,” he told Danish television. “I will never get over it. ... I believe it equals getting a Picasso painting stolen. I was working on the greatest piece I could achieve and it was taken away from me.”
Contador, speaking through a translator, called his victory a “dream come true.” In 2004, he suffered a brain aneurism while racing in Spain’s Tour of Asturias and collapsed to the ground with severe convulsions. He underwent surgery in a matter of hours, which doctors said saved him from irreversible brain damage. They blamed it on a congenital problem with an artery in his brain. While in the hospital, Contador drew inspiration from a book about Armstrong, who survived testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain.
Asked on French television about his surgery, Contador took off his yellow cap and showed a large scar running down the side of his head.
“It really marked me for life,” he said, “but allowed me to better savor this moment.”
Contador is a new star for a race struggling for credibility and searching for a successor to Armstrong, who retired in 2005. Last year’s winner, Floyd Landis, did not defend his crown because of doping charges hanging over him.
This Tour turned into a circus after word spread that Rasmussen was competing despite missing doping controls in May and June, and after Kazakh star Alexandre Vinokourov — a pre-race favorite — and Cristian Moreni of Italy failed doping tests. They and their teams left the race. Police raided their hotels, searching for doping products.
The feel-good factor generated by the race’s July 7 start in London quickly faded.
A split emerged as Tour organizers blamed the sport’s governing body for not telling them Rasmussen missed tests. Organizers said they would have prevented him from taking the start had they known. Some newspapers in France declared the Tour dead and said it should be suspended until the sport cleans up. Some International Olympic Committee members warned that more scandals could jeopardize cycling’s place in the Olympics.
The first week of the Tour was dominated by sprinters and marked by crashes. Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland took the lead on the first day and wore the yellow jersey for the first week.
Then the doping demon quickly returned.
First came news that Patrik Sinkewitz of Germany tested positive for the male hormone testosterone in a sample taken in June while he was training.
Then, during a 48-hour span last week, came the successive punches of Vinokourov’s test for a banned blood transfusion, Moreni’s positive test for testosterone and Rasmussen’s ouster — a race-changing decision that emerged late at night.
On Rasmussen’s last day of racing, cyclists from French and German teams refused to ride off with him at the start, protesting all the scandals.
Vinokourov also denied doping, although a follow-up test confirmed the positive result given from the first. Vinokourov has hired Landis’ lawyer to defend him.
The Tour’s chief executive said doping had corrupted the sport to such an extent that cyclists no longer benefited from the presumption of innocence. Contador was not spared suspicions. He missed last year’s Tour when his former team was disqualified because he and four other riders were implicated in a Spanish blood-doping investigation known as Operation Puerto. Contador said his name mistakenly turned up in the Puerto file, and cycling authorities attested to that.