Contador reigns as new king of the road

Contador's victory was watched by Lance Armstrong, the seven-times tour winner and a part-owner of the discovery channel team.-AP

The final dash down the Champs-Elysées remains one of the finest sights in sport however tarnished the crown, says Richard Williams.

It is among the most stirring sights in all of sport, and all the scandals of the event could not change that, at least. As the 141 survivors of the Tour de France’s original field of 189 riders came down the Rue de Rivoli for the first time, the eight remaining riders of the Discovery Channel team, with the yellow jersey in their midst, swung into line astern and cut a diagonal at speed across the cobbles of the Place de la Concorde. For those watching from the lamp posts, the railings and the balcony of the Hotel Crillon, it was poetry in motion. No one could wish to put an end to such a spectacle.

Three weeks after they set off in London amid conditions more evocative of a Provençal heatwave, the riders ended their controversial adventure in very British conditions, coming through squally showers and finding Paris under cloudy skies.

Having dawdled their way through the opening 100 kilometres, they put on a good show for the spectators over nine laps up and down the Champs-Elysées, with Daniele Bennati of the Lampre team taking the closing sprint.

Alberto Contador, the 24-year-old from Madrid who rides for Discovery Channel, finished in the yellow jersey, although so troubled have been the circumstances that many observers will have difficulty in recognising him as an authentic winner of cycling’s most precious honour.

Contador is the first specialist climber to win since Marco Pantani in 1998, the year in which the race was disfigured by the discovery of doping apparatus in a Festina team van. That race, too, ended under grey skies and in rain in Paris, and with promises that the sport was about to make a new start. Those promises proved to be largely without foundation, and a mood of scepticism surrounds the current pledges of imminent reform precipitated by the disqualifications and dismissals of prominent riders.

The 91-mile stage started from the headquarters of the French rugby XV in Marcoussis, south of Paris, thus giving a plug to the autumn’s Rugby World Cup. Shortly before arriving in Paris the riders passed through Châtenay-Malabry, the site of France’s national anti-doping laboratory, and the Boulogne-Billancourt headquarters of L’Equipe, whose reporters are invariably the first to break the news of a positive drugs test.

It was they who announced recently that a test had confirmed the existence of a second person’s blood in a sample given by the Kazakh rider Alexandr Vinokourov, whose disqualification plunged the race into a sense of despair that was deepened a day later by the dismissal of the race leader, Michael Rasmussen of Denmark.

Contador took over the yellow jersey when Rasmussen was ejected by his own team manager while holding what appeared to be a winning lead. After the time-trial, in which Contador maintained enough of an advantage over the second-placed Australian rider Cadel Evans to ensure victory, he again had to deny his involvement in the doping system uncovered by a Spanish police investigation last year.

“I was cleared,” he retorted, in answer to persistent inquiries. But Dick Pound, head of the World Anti-Doping Agency, was quoted as saying investigations were continuing, particularly into the reference to a doping programme for a rider identified as “AC” found in documents belonging to Eufemio Fuentes, the doctor whose activities were uncovered by the Spanish police.

Contador’s victory was watched by Lance Armstrong, the seven-times Tour winner and a part-owner of the Discovery Channel team. Given that last year’s race was “won”, until his disqualification for an excess of testosterone, by Floyd Landis, one of Armstrong’s former lieutenants, it could be said that the man famous for coming back from cancer surgery to set records in the world’s most gruelling sporting event has simply found other means of extending his period of domination.

But the Discovery Channel team’s ceremonial parade will have been their last, at least under that name, since the title sponsor is due to quit. Armstong and his co-owners may find it hard to secure new backing, given the possibility of a more general exodus of companies angered by the tide of bad publicity.

Bike racing has done itself an enormous amount of harm in the past week. But the crowds in Paris, although not as numerous as those in London three weeks earlier, showed enough enthusiasm to suggest that we have not seen the last of this permanently beleaguered yet remarkably durable and often beguilingly beautiful institution.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007