Defiant Contador wins the Tour his way
Newly-crowned Tour de France champion Alberto Contador showed more than impressive climbing and time trialling skills on his way to victory in this year's race.
The 26-year-old Spaniard belied his unassuming nature to show nerves of steel in the face of a formidable teammate, Lance Armstrong, whose reputation struck fear into rivals during his seven-year reign on the race.
Racing for the same team, Astana, the collaboration of the Texan and the Spanish young gun who has won all three major Tours was always going to create sparks.
"It wasn't really a compatible situation," Contador admitted on Saturday. "I knew he was coming here to win, but so was I."
After months of speculation that Astana was composed of two rival camps, it took only until the race's third stage for the first shots to be fired. When Armstrong used his head and his legs in testing wind conditions to join an echelon created by the Columbia team - which ultimately left many of his rivals, including Contador, 41secs behind - the Spaniard knew what he was up against.
Armstrong was unrepentant, claiming that Contador should have known to be at the front of the peloton before the split.
"I won the Tour de France seven times, so it makes no sense not to be at the front," said Armstrong, who at La Grande Motte moved up to third overall at 40sec behind Swiss Fabian Cancellara.
Although hard to prove, for some Armstrong's move was pre-meditated. On the next day's team time trial over 39km Astana blew away their rivals and Armstrong missed replacing Cancellara as the yellow jersey wearer by just 0.22secs.
Astana team boss Johan Bruyneel would only say after the stage: "After three years of retirement to be back in the yellow jersey would have been quite a statement."
Once in the Pyrenees, Contador struck the first of three blows which put Armstrong firmly in his place.
On the first summit finish to Arcalis on stage seven where French race debutant Brice Feillu scored a memorable victory Contador attacked a small group containing all the main favourites inside the final two kilometres. Andy Schleck, Cadel Evans and Carlos Sastre dropped further behind Contador, who leapfrogged Armstrong into second place, six seconds behind new yellow jersey holder, Italian Rinaldo Nocentini of AG2R.
Despite Astana having four riders in the top six, Contador's performance appeared to vex Bruyneel, a close friend and mentor of Armstrong.
"No one had specific instructions to attack," admitted Bruyneel.
With opportunities rare, there followed a long truce in the battle for the yellow jersey. But when Nocentini's lead did come under threat in stage 14, it was Armstrong who helped - and it wasn't Contador, but the American's former teammate George Hincapie, now of the Columbia team, who almost benefited. In the end AG2R were helped by Columbia's rivals Garmin to keep Hincapie down in second place by just five seconds.
"No one, and I mean no one, wanted George in yellow more than me," said Armstrong.
Hincapie must have felt honoured, because Armstrong never said as much about Contador.
But on the race's second summit finish the next day, Contador put the record straight when he capped a superb solo attack with victory in Verbier, Switzerland to take command of the race.
Armstrong finished 1:35 behind and, for the first time, showed signs of giving up.
"There is no point messing around. I gave everything I had and I wasn't the best. Alberto showed he is the best rider in the race," said the American.
The next day Bruyneel announced his imminent departure from Astana.
After the race the Belgian conceded that "tensions existed" within the team, adding it was not until "Verbier that we realised Alberto was the strongest."
Contador remained focused, and again defied team orders on stage 17 to Le Grand Bornand when he raced away from teammate Andreas Klöden with the Schleck brothers Andy and Frank. While dropping Klöden off the podium Contador's attack helped put Andy Schleck second at 2:26, while Armstrong dropped from being second at 1:37 to fourth at 3:55
Again, Bruyneel railed that Contador's move was against his advice.
"We could have been first, second and third today in general classification, but now we are first, fourth and fifth," said the Belgian.
On stage 18's individual time trial there were no tactics to follow. Contador simply made a sign of the cross several times before setting off on a 39km trip around Lake Annecy which proved, beyond all doubt, that he was a worthy winner. Beating Cancellara by 3sec, Contador left Armstrong trailing in 16th place while Schleck, at 1:45, did enough to virtually secure second.
Spanish press hails King Contador
Spain's press hailed Alberto Contador as a "king" on Monday after the 26-year-old won the Tour de France for the second time after an intense rivalry with his Astana team-mate Lance Armstrong.
"The new king of the Tour is called Contador," top-selling daily El Pais wrote on its front page below a picture of a smiling Contador receiving his trophy on Sunday as Armstrong looked on beside him on the podium.
"This is the second Tour of the fittest," the newspaper added.
Catalan daily La Vanguardia called Contador "the king of Paris", adding he is "amongst the best riders in history" while sports daily Marca and Publico said the rider had been "crowned for the second time in Paris".
Contador, the winner of the 2007 Tour, was locked into a duel with his US team-mate Armstrong, a seven-time champion, for much of the race, raising tensions between the two. Armstrong finished the Tour in third place.
The Spaniard took control of the Tour in the final week in the Alps leading to a fourth straight win of the cycling race by a Spaniard.
Oscar Pereiro won the Tour in 2006 and Carlos Sastre in 2008.
Daily ABC said Contador "celebrated his second Tour isolated by his team, that of Armstrong, who climbed up to the podium with the most serious of expressions".
The view was shared by Marca which said the rider won the tour "against everyone" and has become the new "boss" of world cycling.
Contador and Armstrong wonder why the Danish national anthem is being played
The newspaper also called the accidental playing of the Danish national anthem when Contador stepped up to the podium as an "unforgivable mistake".
Tour organizers correctly played Spain's anthem when Contador's Astana team was recognized on the podium.
Armstrong needs to work hard to win 2010 Tour, says Astana boss
Lance Armstrong will have to work hard if he wants to win the Tour de France next year, Astana's Belgian manager Johan Bruyneel said Sunday after the US rider finished the 2009 Tour in third place.
"It is too early to talk about it but if Armstrong wants to win, he must work hard," Bruyneel told Spanish public television TVE when asked what the 37-year-old's chances would be for the 2010 Tour.
Armstrong, a seven-time winner, finished third overall after Sunday's 21st and final stage at 5:24 behind his Astana team-mate and the winner of the Tour, Spain's Alberto Contador. He is set to return to next year's race with Team Radioshack, which Bruyneel is expected to manage.
Luxembourg's Andy Schleck of Team Saxo Bank was the runner-up at 4min 11sec.
Bruyneel, 44, said it was "impossible to do better" for Astana, which he took over in 2008. At the time the Kazakh team was in shambles after having been kicked out of the 2007 Tour de France for doping violations.
"We dreamt of having three riders on the podium, but that was not very realistic," he said.
Bruyneel said "it was not easy" to lead Astana to victory at the Tour, especially due to the strong rivalry between Contador and Armstrong.
He said the "worst moment" for Astana came during the 17th stage when Contador attacked during a final climb, causing his German team-mate Andreas Klöden to fall behind. Klöden finished the Tour in sixth place.
Tour chief hails clean race, but says war not over
Tour de France chief Christian Prudhomme was understandably cautious after celebrating a scandal-free 96th edition Sunday. For the first time in living memory the world's biggest bike race avoided being dragged through the mire by drugs cheats.
On this year's race only the sublime performances of Contador in the gruelling mountain stages prompted some experts to raise eyebrows. But Contador, who won with a comfortable lead over his rivals, insists he is a clean Tour champion.
"I'm happy to win a Tour de France that has so far been clean," said the Spaniard. "I get tested all year long. I make myself available 365 days a year, and I do it willingly. There has been huge investment to fight doping in the sport and for me it's a good thing."
After years of seeing the race dragged through the mire, Prudhomme said he is pleased. But the Frenchman believes the fight against the dope cheats is far from over.
"We can't allow ourselves to believe that things have completely changed, this is a fight that will go on and on," said Prudhomme.
Prudhomme knows all about doping scandals on the race, in his many years as a journalist and in every year since he began his first tentative steps as the race director in 2006.
Three years ago one of Prudhomme's first missions was to throw out pre-race favourites Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich, because of their respective links to the 'Operation Puerto' doping affair in Spain.
A year later Astana, then under different management, were ejected after their leader Alexandre Vinokourov tested positive for blood doping.
It was also in 2007 that Denmark's Michael Rasmussen, wearing the race leader's yellow jersey but under huge pressure over doping suspicions, was ejected from the race. Rasmussen did not test positive but he was ruled 'persona non grata' by the sport's authorities after it emerged he had lied about his whereabouts when being sought out by doping controllers before the race.
The 2008 edition was thrilling, until the first of several riders were disgraced after testing positive for the banned blood booster EPO (erythropoietin). Spanish duo Manuel Beltran and Moises Duenas joined Italian star Riccardo Riccò in leaving the race early after testing positive for EPO.
After the race it emerged that Riccò's teammate Leonardo Piepoli, third place finisher Bernard Kohl and double stage winner Stefan Schumacher had all tested positive for the latest generation of EPO, CERA.
Given the Tour's recent history, Prudhomme would be forgiven for holding his breath: two days after a superb 2006 edition it was revealed that American winner Floyd Landis had tested positive for testosterone, and disqualified.
As with every year the sporting authorities have cranked up the fight against the dope cheats and now, in cycling, the use of a 'biological passport' - which registers and charts the riders' blood samples throughout their career - has already proven its worth.
Awaiting the results of all the doping tests taken from this year's Tour may cause Prudhomme some sleepless nights yet. But for the moment he is enjoying a scandal-free finish.
"There will be other (positive) cases, that's just the way it is in sport," he added.
"But coming through the Tour without having to deal with scandal was pleasing. I really think things are changing. The targeting of riders and the (biological) passport means that nowadays it is far more difficult to cheat and get away with it."
Prudhomme salutes Contador, Armstrong ... and Brits
Tour de France chief Christian Prudhomme gave the thumbs-up to the influence of Lance Armstrong on this year's race after the American came out of retirement to finish a commendable third overall.
Armstrong finished over five minutes behind Astana teammate Alberto Contador, who proved unbeatable over three weeks of tough racing on his way to his second victory since his maiden win in 2007. However on more than one occasion the 37-year-old seven-time champion showed that his sense for racing is still up there with the best.
When Armstrong used his head and his legs in testing wind conditions on stage three to join an echelon created by the Columbia team - which ultimately left many of his rivals, including Contador, 41secs behind - it put his race ambitions on full display. The next day when Astana won the team time trial Armstrong just missed out on pulling on the race's yellow jersey by 0.22secs.
"He has tactical intelligence, and is always where he needs to be in the race," purred Prudhomme. "Armstrong is someone who is dangerous on all kinds of stages."
Contador, however, was not left out. He showed his all-round talent by winning on one of the race's three summit finishes, controlling his rivals on all the mountain stages and winning the second time trial. But faced with uncertainties over whether he or Armstrong would lead Astana's yellow jersey bid the Spaniard also showed steely determination.
"He's a great climber, whose style is elegant and fluid," said Prudhomme. "And he's obviously someone who has a very strong character."
Prudhomme is looking forward to next year when Armstrong, Contador and second place finisher Andy Schleck are set to return for a three-way battle for the yellow jersey. But he admitted he almost couldn't wait so long.
"I found myself wondering what it would have been like to have Contador and Armstrong in different teams."
Mark Cavendish, winner of six stages
Brad Wiggins and David Millar, British riders for Garmin-Slipstream
While Contador and Armstrong dominated the headlines, a surprise showing by Bradley Wiggins, who finished fourth overall, added to a hugely successful Tour for Britain.
Isle of Man rider Mark Cavendish was one of the stars of the race, claiming a stunning six stage wins from sprints to take his tally to 10 from his past two participations.
Prudhomme said he was not surprised at the increasing English-speaking influence in cycling, pointing to Britain's dominance on the track and its recent successes on the road.
"It's true, what with the president of the UCI (International Cycling Union) being Irish, the return of Armstrong, (sprinter) the phenomenal Mark Cavendish, the likes of whom I haven't seen since the great Freddy Maertens," said Prudhomme.
"Then there was the hugely successful start of the Tour in London two years ago, and Britain's medal haul on the track at the Olympics. "After lagging behind in cycling compared to their success in other sports, the English speakers are starting to make a real name for themselves in cycling."
© AFP 2009
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