Alberto Contador won the Tour de France for a second time on Sunday, while Lance Armstrong capped his return to the race with an impressive third-place finish.
Mark Cavendish of Britain collected his sixth stage win of this year’s Tour in a sprint after the 164km ride from Montereau-Fault-Yonne to the Champs-Elysees in Paris.
Over nearly 3,500km and 21 stages of racing over three weeks, Contador repelled many challenges in the mountains, excelled in the two time-trials — winning a pivotal race against the clock in the 18th stage — and won the first Alpine stage.
Andy Schleck of Luxembourg, Contador’s biggest rival among title contenders in the mountains, was second overall.
Contador, the 2007 champion, also had to battle a rearguard action within his Astana team, where the comeback of Armstrong to the Tour after three and a half years of retirement raised questions about who would be the team leader.
“It has been an especially difficult Tour for me, but I savor it and it is more special because of it,” Contador said after the prize ceremony.
The subtext to the race was the open tension between Armstrong and Contador within Astana — a battle of egos between a proven cycling giant and another making the strong case that he’s one too.
The body language on the winner’s podium said it all. As he climbed onto the victor’s stage, Armstrong gave a perfunctory handshake to Contador, then heartily shook Schleck’s hand.
The quintessential American competitor cast a long sideways glance at the victor’s bowl as Contador took it and only gave a quick glance at his own crystal trophy.
Then Contador was greeted with a recording of the Danish national anthem because of an embarrassing mistake on the part of organizers.
The 26-year-old took off his cap and stood at attention while the wrong anthem played, looking off to the side at one point and occasionally breaking into a grin, images broadcast on public Spanish television TVE showed.
When the victory ceremony was repeated, this time with the Spanish anthem, the more up-tempo Royal March military tune, Contador smiled broadly and held his cap over his heart as he looked ahead.
The television station said Contador, the 2007 Tour champion, himself alerted tour organizers of the error, which it called a “serious mistake.”
Earlier, massive crowds poured out onto Paris’ most famous avenue for the finish — Norwegians in Viking helmets, flag-waving Britons and an American in a stars-and-stripes top hat among them.
By the end of the race, Armstrong was talking less of squabbling within Astana and more about Contador’s greatness as a rider — and admitted his form wasn’t the best.
“I’m realistic. I did everything I could,” Armstrong said before the final stage. “For me, and even more for my kids, it’s probably a healthy thing for them to see, because they saw their dad that never lost and the kids in their class [say]: ‘Your dad never loses,’ so it’s good for them to see dad get third and still be cool with that and still be happy.”
Asked on French TV what the hardest moment in the race had been, Contador replied: “It was in the [team] hotel,” without elaborating.
Contador and Armstrong reportedly had differences early in the race, as tensions grew over who was the No. 1 Astana rider.
“We are totally incompatible. In the end, Armstrong will go his way and I’ll go mine,” Contador said.