ALBERTO CONTADOR edged closer to Lance Armstrong’s record number of victories yesterday as the American’s Tour de France career came to an end.
Contador (Astana) secured a third Tour title in four years by 39 seconds from Andy Schleck (Team Saxo Bank), who finished as runner-up for a second straight year.
The Spaniard is now four victories behind seven-time winner Armstrong, who bade farewell to the race he dominated with seven successive wins between 1999 and 2005.
After Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) won the 20th stage from Longjumeau to Paris, sprinting to victory on the Champs Elysees, Contador stood atop the podium ahead of Schleck and third-placed Denis Menchov (Rabobank).
However, the 27-year-old’s third successive win – he missed the 2008 Tour as his team was barred – is a victory which will be tainted in some people’s eyes.
Contador seized the maillot jaune on Monday when – contrary to racing etiquette – Schleck suffered a mechanical problem as his chain slipped on the hors categorie (beyond category) climb of the Port de Bales.
The 39-second swing Contador garnered was cancelled out on yesterday’s 52-kilometre penultimate day time-trial from Bordeaux to Pauillac, which all but confirmed Contador as champion ahead of yesterday’s traditional ceremonial procession.
But there was a reminder of the 97th Tour’s pivotal incident after a staged sprint between Contador and Schleck.
The 25-year-old from Luxembourg played along before looking down at his bike.
He radioed to his team car, then dropped back behind the peloton where he switched his bike. In 2009, Schleck finished four minutes 11 seconds behind Contador in second place, but the deficit was cut this year.
Contador and Schleck put the dropped chain incident behind them, but there is no doubt it was the decisive moment.
“All the great races can only be won by very few seconds,” said Contador.
Either way, their rivalry – one which saw them reach the Col du Tourmalet summit as equals – is likely to be an enduring one. “Andy is a great rider, I’ve spent a lot of time with him, I know him very well,” said Contador.
“I think he’s going to be a major rival for a long time.”
Much was made in 2009 of the relationship between Contador and Armstrong, who were members of the same team. The Texan, after establishing the Team RadioShack squad, has endured a difficult 13th and final Tour, finishing almost 40 minutes behind in 23rd place.
But Armstrong still offered an opinion on the duel between Contador and Schleck.
On social networking website Twitter – a medium which Armstrong used to announce this would be his last Tour –– the 38-year-old said: “Incredibly ironic the time difference on GC (general classification) now – 39 secs.
“Same time @andy_schleck lost into Luchon after the chain debacle.”
There was a strange start to Armstrong’s his final day as a Tour rider and Armstrong and his Team RadioShack squad were told to change their race jerseys.
Armstrong, a cancer survivor, and his team wore black jerseys featuring the number 28, to signify the number of millions of people worldwide dealing with the disease.
Race organisers ordered Team RadioShack to revert to their original red and grey jerseys.
The incident was met with a fine of 6,300 Swiss francs, which the International Cycling Union later confirmed they would donate to cancer charities.
Cavendish bounced back from a disappointing start to finish with five stage wins, taking his career tally to 15, and once again proved he is the world’s quickest sprinter.
However, the HTC-Columbia rider missed out on the points classification’s green jersey as Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-Farnese) finished second to claim the prize by 11 points.
Nicolas Roche had been worried about slipping out of the top 15 on the overall classification going into Saturday’s penultimate stage but he turned in a solid performance over the 52-kilometre course, finishing in 53rd place, six minutes and 42 seconds behind the blistering pace set by stage winner Fabian Cancellara.
Having been affected by a strong headwind throughout the stage, fears that Roche would be caught by time trial specialists Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) and Thomas Lofkvist (Sky Professional Team)-both of whom were immediately behind him on GC going into the stage, were allayed when he dug deep to record a very quick time to retain his 15th place in the overall standings.
Roche had set top 15 as his pre-race target and achieved that yesterday when he finished in 18th place on the stage into Paris, leading out his team sprinter Lloyd Mondory who claimed 12th place. This year’s Tour marks an excellent improvement by Roche, the Ag2r La Mondiale rider finished just 16 minutes 59 seconds behind Contador.
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