PARIS - Lance Armstrong’s kids were dressed in yellow. He was not.
When the seven-time Tour de France champion returned to the Tour podium Sunday, his family was there. His fans were there. And so was rival and teammate Alberto Contador — wearing the coveted and hard-won yellow jersey.
Four years after his seventh Tour win, Armstrong capped his return with an impressive third-place finish. He had his clan on hand — son Luke, twin girls Grace and Isabelle, his mom, Linda, ex-wife, Kristin, and his girlfriend Anna Hansen, with their baby Max, sporting bright yellow shoes.
They were among the massive crowd that 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.
Contador cruised down the Champs-Elysees to win the Tour for a second time Sunday after 2,141 miles over three weeks of racing. He repelled 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 toughest rival in the mountains, was second overall.
Contador said his biggest battle, however, was against his own Astana team.
“It has been an especially difficult Tour for me, but I savor it and it is more special because of it,” he said after the prize ceremony.
The body language on the winner’s podium said it all.
As the 37-year-old Armstrong climbed onto the stage, he gave a perfunctory handshake to his teammate Contador, then heartily grabbed Schleck’s hand with both hands.
And as Contador took the victor’s bowl, Armstrong cast a long sideways glance at what had long been his spoils; he gave only a cursory glance to his own crystal trophy.
Asked on French TV what the hardest moment in this race, Contador replied: “It was in the (team) hotel,” without elaborating.
Only 26 years old, Contador already is one of cycling’s greats, having won all three Grand Tours of France, Italy and Spain.
Armstrong’s comeback after 3½ years of retirement raised questions about who would lead Astana during cycling’s most prestigious race. Those questions remained through much of the Tour as tensions mounted over who was the No. 1 rider.
On Sunday, Armstrong and Contador shared glasses of champagne on the ride into Paris. But it seemed to be more about keeping up appearances than a genuine celebration: After a few sips, they tossed away their glasses, half-drunk.
“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.”
By the end of the race, Armstrong, who admitted his form wasn’t the best, was talking less of squabbling within Astana and more about Contador’s greatness as a rider.
Like cancer survivor Armstrong, Contador has rebounded from a brush with death.
After persistent headaches, Contador fell in the first stage of the 2004 Vuelta a Asturias race, went to hospital and learned he had a congenital cerebral vascular disorder, cavernoma. Eight months after the surgery, he won the fifth stage of the 2005 Tour Down Under. Today the only reminder of that scare is a large scar running down the side of his head.
With Contador’s victory Sunday, the Tour has been won by a Spaniard for four straight years — Oscar Pereiro in 2006, Contador and Carlos Sastre last year.
Despite the tension, Contador said he was more at ease in this year’s Tour than in 2007.
Four days from that finish, then race leader Michael Rasmussen of Denmark was sent home for lying about his whereabouts during pre-Tour doping controls.
For the first time since 2000, the Tour got through three weeks with no positive doping cases. But the leader of France’s anti-doping agency says not all results are in, and more tests still could be carried out in the weeks, months or even years to come.
Contador, who had to sit out last year because Astana was banned because of previous doping scandals, finished in 85 hours, 48 minutes, 35 seconds. The race looped from Monaco, across the Mediterranean rim into Spain, up the Pyrenees, diagonally across central and northeastern France to the Alps, and then down to Saturday’s race climax on the dreaded Mont Ventoux in southeast France before the Paris finish.
Schleck was 4:11 seconds behind. Armstrong was 5:24 back.
After three straight Tours decided by less than a minute between first and second place, Contador’s margin of victory was the largest since Armstrong collected his last title in 2005. And Armstrong was the second-oldest rider to reach the Tour podium. Raymond Poulidor of France was 40 he placed third in 1976.
The 24-year-old Schleck won the white jersey awarded to the Tour’s best young rider. Franco Pellizotti of Italy picked up the polka-dot jersey given to the race’s King of the Mountains. And Thor Hushovd of Norway beat the 24-year-old Briton rider Mark Cavendish for the green jersey given to the Tour’s best Tour sprinter.
Cavendish collected his sixth stage win of this year’s Tour in a sprint after the 101.9-mile course ride from Montereau-Fault-Yonne to the Champs-Elysees to become the first rider to win six Tour stages in a sprint.
“For sure, winning on the Champs-Elysees is a dream for every single sprinter — to see the Arc de Triomphe in the distance,” Cavendish said.
“I can’t go home from this Tour being disappointed.”
Neither did Contador, who’s already trying to figure out how to win a third Tour.
Armstrong’s future is set. He’ll lead a new squad sponsored by RadioShack.
Contador’s plans, however, are uncertain. Astana likely will welcome back Alexandre Vinokourov, its fallen former star, after a doping ban. Whether Astana will still have room for Contador, and whether the Spaniard will want to team with Vinokourov, is unknown.
What’s very clear is Armstrong and Contador already are relishing the chance to face off again next year, freed of the need to paper over the obvious cracks in their relationship.
“We are totally incompatible,” Contador said. “In the end, Armstrong will go his way, and I’ll go mine.”
Armstrong even skipped a party honoring Contador on Saturday night, instead going out for drinks with backers of his future team, Agence France Press reported. .
2009 Tour de France
Highlights from Lance Armstrong’s return and more of the 2009 Tour.
2010 Tour de France