By Jonathan Brand
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, July 27, 2009
PARIS, July 26 -- A Spanish flag tied around his neck, Alberto Contador looked like a cycling superhero as he pedaled through the southern Parisian suburbs on Sunday.
If the red and yellow bandera slowed his pace, Contador didn't mind.
After finishing Saturday's tough stage atop Mont Ventoux with a lead of 4 minutes 11 seconds over Luxembourg's Andy Schleck, the 26-year-old used the concluding stage of the Tour de France as a victory lap, celebrating his second career Tour win with photo ops, champagne and pats on the back from fellow riders in the peloton.
And atop the podium on Paris's Champs-Élysées, where Columbia-HTC sprinter Mark Cavendish had just captured his sixth stage of this race, Contador continued to beam with delight.
"The last day was great," said Contador, the fourth Spanish rider in a row to win the Tour.
"At times I felt like a child again. I feel a great sense of relief."
For the 2007 winner, the previous 20 stages of this three-week race had been filled with tension on and off the bike.
He and Astana teammate Lance Armstrong, who finished third overall, 5:24 behind, were embroiled in a battle for control of the team and the media spotlight.
"It's been a hard Tour," Contador said at a news conference Saturday night. "I knew I had to be ready both physically and mentally. At the end of each stage, I said 'one day less.' "
Contador settled the team debate last Sunday, with a solo breakaway up a mountain climb to Verbier, Switzerland at the end of Stage 15.
The move put him into the yellow jersey, which he retained for the rest of race.
After the stage, Armstrong said that Contador was the Tour's "strongest rider" and that he would support his Spanish teammate.
Though he held to his word through Paris, the Texan regained the media focus last Thursday, unveiling Team RadioShack, a new squad that he will ride for in 2010.
It is expected that Johan Bruyneel, Astana's current team manager, will join the new team; the Belgian said last week that he would be leaving Astana after this year.
Armstrong's announcement came on the heels of Contador's individual time trial victory around Lake Annecy, which cemented his grip over Andy Schleck, the race's second place finisher.
Finally, Armstrong skipped Astana's celebratory dinner for Contador on Saturday night in favor of meeting with his new sponsors.
"To be honest, I went out for dinner with the Radio Shack guys," Armstrong said.
But despite the differences between the two stars, it seems that winning is the salve that cures all for Contador.
"There were tensions, but the situation has normalized," he said. "And I am very happy with the result."
For Armstrong, he's happy with his performance as well.
His time trial ride in Annecy on Thursday vaulted him over SaxoBank's Frank Schleck into third place and on Sunday, he was standing on the podium.
"I can't complain," he said after the stage to Mont Ventoux. "Coming out here and getting on the podium with these young guys, it's not so bad."
And despite all the conflict within the Astana team, they had a great Tour as well. The Kazakh-based team won three stages, placed first overall in the team classification and had three riders in the top 10: Contador, Armstrong and German Andréas Klöden, who finished sixth.
"I'm glad we were able to win this race," said Bruyneel. "We couldn't hope for more."
Still, they proved in this race that it's difficult to support two world-class riders vying for the general classification.
Which is why it's unlikely that Armstrong's new team will feature another rider of the same caliber; the same can be said for Contador's team, whichever that may be.
Though Contador has one year left on his contract with Astana, it's rumored that he's been talking with American-based Garmin-Slipstream about wearing the orange and blue next year.
So far, Garmin sport director Jonathan Vaughters has refused to discuss the matter, but said that Contador "would be a fantastic rider to have on any team."
Contador has acknowledged that he could be on a new team next year, but for now, he'll enjoy the fruits of his labor.
"I have worked so hard, thinking only about the Tour, trying to do everything perfectly for the Tour," he said. "Now to be able to finally win it, knowing that everyone was betting on me as the maximum favorite . . . I am very satisfied."