Contador becomes youngest Tour de France champ since 1997


PARIS -- All the right elements were there: The smiling
winner in his bright yellow jersey. The fans several rows deep
under the majestic trees of the Champs-Elysees.

But something seemed broken about the Tour de France on Sunday --
perhaps forever.

Overshadowing the joy of its newest and youngest winner in 10
years -- Alberto Contador of Spain, who rode for the American
Discovery Channel team -- was ominous talk and questions about the
very existence of cycling's premier event:

" How to have faith in the Tour when even its director said the
suspicion of doping hangs over all riders.

" How much longer fans will remain loyal to a race where cheating
has skewed the results for more than a decade.

" How to regard cycling. Is it really still a sport or just
drug-fueled entertainment on wheels, where observers think "what's
he taking?" not "didn't he ride well?"

That such conversations were taking place the same day the
grueling race crowned a champion may have been unfair to Contador.
But he, like everyone in cycling, has become a victim of a drug
problem that burst like a long-neglected boil at this Tour, having
been overlooked for too long.

"Suspicion is everywhere," Tour director Christian Prudhomme
said. "We could have doubts about everyone."

If doping didn't win Contador the Tour -- and fans will say they
have a right to ask -- then it transformed the outcome sufficiently
to hand him victory.

The 24-year-old rider had seemed destined for the runner-up spot
until the race was hit by a bombshell just five days from the
finish: the ouster of leader Michael Rasmussen. His Rabobank team
accused the Dane of having lied about his whereabouts before the
Tour to evade doping controls.

Contador kissed his yellow jersey on the podium and thrust his
arms ecstatically, with the Arc de Triomphe in the background.
Outside his Discovery Channel team bus, staffers uncorked
champagne. His original goal was to take the white jersey as best
young rider. In the end, he got white and yellow. His margin of
victory -- 23 seconds over Cadel Evans of Australia -- was the
second-narrowest in the Tour's 104-year history, after 2,200 miles
through Britain, Belgium, Spain and France.

"I think we've seen the future of Spanish cycling and perhaps
international cycling," seven-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong
said, referring to Contador, the first Spaniard to win the race
since the last of Miguel Indurain's five titles in 1995.

Another Discovery rider, Levi Leipheimer of the United States,
finished third, 31 seconds behind, but still good enough to join
Contador on the podium.

In an odd little twist, the final 91-mile ride to Paris took the
pack through the town of Chatenay-Malabry, home to the French
anti-doping laboratory.

Daniele Bennati of Italy won the stage.

Discovery sports manager Johan Bruyneel, who mentored
Armstrong's wins, said inheriting the victory after Rasmussen's
ouster gave it a bittersweet tinge.

"It's not a nice feeling. You don't want to win like that," he
said. "The way things were, most likely he would have won the Tour
de France."

Rasmussen insisted he never used performance-enhancing drugs and
was left wondering what might have been.

"Every day I'm going to wake up and think about not being
allowed to win the Tour de France -- the race that defines me as a
cyclist," he told Danish television. "I will never get over it.
... I believe it equals getting a Picasso painting stolen. I was
working on the greatest piece I could achieve and it was taken away
from me."

Contador, speaking through a translator, called his victory a
"dream come true." In 2004, he suffered a brain aneurism while
racing in Spain's Tour of Asturias and collapsed to the ground with
severe convulsions. He underwent surgery in a matter of hours,
which doctors said saved him from irreversible brain damage. They
blamed it on a congenital problem with an artery in his brain.
While in the hospital, Contador drew inspiration from a book about
Armstrong, who survived testicular cancer that had spread to his
lungs and brain.

Asked on French television about his surgery, Contador took off
his yellow cap and showed a large scar running down the side of his

"It really marked me for life," he said, "but allowed me to
better savor this moment."

Contador is a new star for a race struggling for credibility and
searching for a successor to Armstrong, who retired in 2005. Last
year's winner, Floyd Landis, did not defend his crown because of
doping charges hanging over him.

This Tour turned into a circus after word spread that Rasmussen
was competing despite missing doping controls in May and June, and
after Kazakh star Alexandre Vinokourov -- a pre-race favorite -- and
Cristian Moreni of Italy failed doping tests. They and their teams
left the race. Police raided their hotels, searching for doping

The feel-good factor generated by the race's July 7 start in
London quickly faded.

A split emerged as Tour organizers blamed the sport's governing
body for not telling them Rasmussen missed tests. Organizers said
they would have prevented him from taking the start had they known.
Some newspapers in France declared the Tour dead and said it should
be suspended until the sport cleans up. Some International Olympic
Committee members warned that more scandals could jeopardize
cycling's place in the Olympics.

The first week of the Tour was dominated by sprinters and marked
by crashes. Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland took the lead on the
first day and wore the yellow jersey for the first week.

Then the doping demon quickly returned.

First came news that Patrik Sinkewitz of Germany tested positive
for the male hormone testosterone in a sample taken in June while
he was training.

Then, during a 48-hour span last week, came the successive
punches of Vinokourov's test for a banned blood transfusion,
Moreni's positive test for testosterone and Rasmussen's ouster -- a
race-changing decision that emerged late at night.

On Rasmussen's last day of racing, cyclists from French and
German teams refused to ride off with him at the start, protesting
all the scandals.

Vinokourov also denied doping, although a follow-up test
confirmed the positive result given from the first. Vinokourov has
hired Landis' lawyer to defend him.

The Tour's chief executive said doping had corrupted the sport
to such an extent that cyclists no longer benefited from the
presumption of innocence. Contador was not spared suspicions. He
missed last year's Tour when his former team was disqualified
because he and four other riders were implicated in a Spanish
blood-doping investigation known as Operation Puerto. Contador said
his name mistakenly turned up in the Puerto file, and cycling
authorities attested to that.