Tour de France riders set off yesterday toward the finish of the three-week race on the Champs-Elysees, with Alberto Contador all but certain to take home the yellow jersey after a race more likely to be remembered for scandal.
The 24-year-old Spaniard seemed to lock up victory by holding off second-placed Cadel Evans of Australia in the final time trial on Saturday to maintain a 23-second lead.
Contador's Discovery Channel teammates were likely to ensure that he protects the thin margin in the 146km ride from Marcoussis to the famous Paris avenue. Discovery's Levi Leipheimer is third overall, 31 seconds back.
Fans poured out to line barriers the Champs-Elysees hours before the finish, braving intermittent rain. Some wore hats with the Tour's logo or yellow rain capes.
In an unplanned irony, yesterday's route was leading the pack through the town of Chatenay-Malabry, home to the French anti-doping laboratory that has exposed several cheats this year.
The highest-profile case among them was pre-race favorite Alexandre Vinokourov, who tested positive for a banned blood transfusion after winning the first long time trial in Albi in the 13th stage. The Kazakh rider and his team, Astana, were disqualified. A top cycling official said late on Saturday that a test on a backup sample of his blood was also positive.
Contador inherited the leader's yellow jersey when Michael Rasmussen was ousted Wednesday by his Rabobank team for lying about his whereabouts last month, when the Danish rider missed a doping check.
Contador's coach regretted that the former leader was out.
"It's not a nice feeling. You don't want to win like that," said Discovery Channel sports manager Johan Bruyneel. "The way things were, most likely he [Rasmussen] would have won the Tour de France."
The celebratory mood at Discovery may also be tempered because Contador has not been spared the doping suspicions that seem attached to the yellow jersey.
He missed last year's Tour when his former team was disqualified because he and four other riders were implicated in the Spanish blood-doping investigation known as Operation Puerto.
Contador said on Saturday that his name mistakenly turned up in the Puerto file -- and the International Cycling Union, or UCI, attested to that.
"I was on the wrong team at the wrong time," he said. "The first time, my name was in Operation Puerto, but then the UCI fixed this mistake. So I'm out of this case."
Vinokourov's was just the biggest name to fall.
Italy's Cristian Moreni tested positive for testosterone, then he and his Cofidis team were taken out of the race on Wednesday. That came a week after word that Patrik Sinkewitz of the T-Mobile squad had tested positive for testosterone in a training run last month.
If all holds, Contador will win with the second-closest margin of victory ever. The record belongs to American Greg Lemond, who had an eight-second margin over France's Laurent Fignon in 1989.
Contador was not the only rider to have clinched a jersey. After the race left hilly patches, young Colombian rider Juan Mauricio Soler has locked up the polka-dot jersey given the King of the Mountains.
With three sprints yesterday, the last major remaining stakes were who would capture the green jersey awarded to the best sprinter -- based on points won for prowess in the dashes.
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