PARIS – Alberto Contador won his third Tour de France in four years on Sunday, heralding the arrival of a new cycling superstar as seven-time champion Lance Armstrong finished the race for the last time.
The 27-year-old Spaniard successfully defended his title by holding off a challenge from main rival Andy Schleck of Luxembourg in Saturday’s individual time trial.
Their battle provided a glimpse of what should become the Tour’s next great rivalry. They duelled wheel-to-wheel until separated in the 15th stage, when Schleck’s chain broke on a climb in the Pyrenees, then again on a lung-busting ride up the Col du Tourmalet that was the highlight of the race.
“I’m very happy,” Contador said Sunday, before hoisting the victor’s cup with the Arc de Triomphe in the background. “At times I had difficulty from a psychological and physical standpoint.”
“I suffered to get this result,” he added. “I don’t have words to express what I feel.”
Victoria’s Ryder Hesjedal, moving up one spot in Saturday’s time trial, finished seventh overall for Canada’s best showing since Steve Bauer’s fourth in 1988.
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.
After 3,642 kilometres and three weeks of racing over mountains, cobblestones and flats in the Netherlands, Belgium and France, Schleck finished 39 seconds back in second place. It was the fifth time the Tour has been decided by less than a minute in its 107-year history.
Denis Menchov of Russia was third overall, 2:01 back.
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.
Contador exchanged hugs with his Astana teammates, who started chanting “Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole” on the Champs-Elysees, where thousands of fans lined the route to cheer the cyclists.
He sipped champagne during the leisurely stage and held up three fingers to signal his third Tour win. Contador, who is known as ‘El Pistolero’ for his trademark finger-firing gesture, took a blue plastic squirt gun and sprayed photographers during his ride.
Contador 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.
Mark Cavendish of Britain claimed his fifth stage victory this Tour and the 15th in his career in a sprint at the end of Sunday’s 20th and final stage — a largely ceremonial 102.5-kilometre course from Longjumeau to the Champs-Elysees in Paris.
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 RadioShack squad won the team competition.
Armstrong completed his last Tour in 23rd place, 39:20 after Contador, his former teammate and rival. It was a far cry from the American’s third-place finish in 2009 on his return from a four-year retirement.
Armstrong’s 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.
In yet one last bout of controversy, his RadioShack team was temporarily barred from starting on Sunday for wearing improper jerseys — 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 had tried to wear black jerseys with “28” on the back. The figure was chosen to honour 28 million people fighting cancer, one of the themes of Armstrong’s Livestrong Foundation.
But International Cycling Union officials said they had to change their jerseys and wear the official race numbers.
In an apparent show of defiance, RadioShack riders returned to their bus — with hundreds of fans nearby — and put back on their black jerseys to wear on the podium for the team prize presentation.
The race started with the July 3 prologue in Rotterdam, Netherlands, where at least half the pack fell due to rain and oil-slickened roads. The third stage was over bone-jarring cobblestone patches — including one that punctured Armstrong’s tire to deal an early blow to his title hopes in a section where his experience had been expected to aid him.
Before the halfway mark of the race, the two-man show between Schleck and Contador emerged when they finished ahead of the other pre-race favourites as the Tour left the Alps.
The decisive endgame of their battle came in the 15th stage.
Schleck attacked Contador on the Port de Bales ascent in the Pyrenees, but his chain came off and the Spaniard sped ahead — taking the yellow jersey off Schleck and gaining a 39-second advantage that would become his exact margin of overall victory.
Many people said Contador had broken the sport’s unwritten etiquette about not taking advantage of unlucky breaks that a rider can’t control — especially when he is wearing yellow.
Schleck said he rode the time trial of his life on Saturday but it wasn’t enough to overcome Contador, who became only the second rider in the last 20 years to win the Tour without a single stage victory.
Armstrong’s hopes of victory collapsed in Stage 8, when he was caught up in three crashes, including one on a roundabout in which his body skidded on the ground.
Struggling on subsequent climbs, Armstrong said his luck — which had kept him largely free of crashes during his reign of Tour domination — had run out, solemnly saying at the time: “My Tour is finished.”
On Sunday, Armstrong was asked what his first thought was when he crossed the finish, he replied: “I need a cold beer.”
AP sports writer Samuel Petrequin contributed to this report.