PARIS (AP) – 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:
-How to have faith in the Tour when even its director said the suspicion of doping hangs over all riders.
-How much longer fans will remain loyal to a race where cheating has skewed the results for more than a decade.
-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 ouster 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.