Spaniard Alberto Contador won the Tour de France on Sunday when he held on to his 23sec lead overnight lead on Australia's Cadel Evans to secure the race's fabled yellow jersey.
Contador, who rides for the Discovery Channel team, became the first Spaniard to win the three-week race since Miguel Indurain, the first ever five-time consecutive winner, in 1991-1995. The 24-year-old from Madrid virtually secured his first ever yellow jersey in only his second ride in the race after a fifth place finish in the penultimate stage time trial in Angoulême on Saturday.
He finished 2min 18secs behind American teammate Levi Leipheimer after the 55.5km race against the clock, but was forced to dig deep to prevent the ever-present Evans from causing a major upset. The 30-year-old Australian started the 19th stage with a deficit of 1min 50sec on Contador but kept the Spaniard on his toes by finishing just 51secs behind Leipheimer to close the gap significantly.
"With four kilometres to go they told me Evans was 35secs behind me. I had to fight to the death to keep the jersey," said Contador.
In the end Contador held on to his lead after Sunday's final stage, not usually contended by the yellow jersey rivals, finished in a bunch sprint that was dominated by Italian Daniele Bennati of the Lampre team.
Evans makes history in tight race
Evans thus becomes Australia's highest ever finisher in the race having equalled compatriot Phil Anderson's achievement of a fifth place finish last year. Once again showing his talents in the mountains and the time trials, Evans has promised he will be back to do even better.
"I think I have a pretty good idea how to ride this Tour now," said Evans, who nonetheless lamented the lack of fight shown by some teams on the 15th stage which left him unable to follow Contador and Denmark's Michael Rasmussen. "I don't know everything, but that (15th stage) to me was where I lost the Tour de France. I debuted in eighth, then I came fifth and now second. I've got a good five or six years of Tour riding in front of me I think."
Like Contador and Evans, American Levi Leipheimer achieved a career best to finish third overall at 31sec, well ahead of fourth-placed Spaniard Carlos Sastre, of CSC, at 7:08. It is the second smallest winning margin in the history of the race, following Greg LeMond's eight-second victory over France's Laurent Fignon after a final day time trial in Paris in 1989.
Contador's victory, and indeed the entire 94th edition of the race, will however be tinged with controversy. And there are many who will claim the race was distorted by the mere inclusion, and subsequent exclusion of Rasmussen.
Denmark's former two-time winner of the polka dot jersey had saddled up looking for a stage win or two, and to perhaps be crowned King of the Mountains for a third consecutive time. To everyone's surprise, he became a potential though unlikely Tour champion before ending his campaign as the race's biggest villain.
But following a week of speculation that Rasmussen had been doping - due to revelations that he had missed four random doping tests in two years - more concrete evidence of cheating distracted the spotlight from the Dane. On the second rest day, it was announced that pre-race favourite Alexandre Vinokourov - who had crumbled in the yellow jersey battle but won two stages in spectacular style - had tested positive for homologous blood doping.
That meant he had used the red blood cells from a compatible donor to boost his performance prior to his time trial victory on stage 13, a result that was confirmed on Saturday following the analysis of a B sample. Vinokourov and his Astana team exited the race, and then the French team Cofidis were forced out after Italian Cristian Moreni tested positive for testosterone.
It was earlier that day that Rasmussen had burst ahead of Leipheimer and Contador to beat the Spaniard on the tough 16th stage to the Col d'Aubisque.
But the drama was far from over.
Hours later, Contador - who was 3:10 behind the Dane after the final day of climbing in the Pyrenees - found out he would soon take over possession of the yellow jersey when the Dane's Rabobank team finally decided to throw him out.
"I was surprised when I heard the news (on Rasmussen)," said Contador. "When a rider crashes you can pick up the yellow jersey, so I'm looking at the situation a bit like that."
Rabobank finally sacked Rasmussen after discovering he had lied to them over his whereabouts in June.
For Evans and many other riders it could all have been so different. But the Australian refused to reflect on what his chances would have been like if Rasmussen, in keeping with the race's code of ethics on suspected cheats, had not raced from the beginning.
Wife missing, but Bennati wins on the Champs Elysees
Italian Daniele Bennati won final stage, but was left to regret that his wife missed seeing the most famous victory of his career.
Bennati launched an unassailable drive for the finish line of the 146km long 20th stage from Marcoussis to Paris, holding off Thor Hushovd to deprive the Norwegian of a second consecutive victory on the Champs Elysees. Germany's Erik Zabel came third ahead of South African Robert Hunter and Belgian Tom Boonen.
Boonen's fifth place was enough for him to secure the race's green jersey for the points classification, succeeding Australian Robbie McEwen who left the race in the eighth stage in the Alps after finishing outside the stage time limit.
Bennati meanwhile was overjoyed having coming into the race with the dream of winning just one stage, which he achieved when he won the 17th stage to Castelsarrasin. But he was sorry that his wife, who got entangled in the crowds as she made her way to the finish line, will have to watch the repeats of his victory on television.
"I can't believe I've won here," said the Italian one-day specialist. "I came here to win a stage and now I'm going home with two, and the most prestigious one on the Champs Elysees.
"I'm not even a real sprinter, I like to get into breakaways. In the past I've had a lot of injury problems. My success here is the fruit of my patience, and hard work."
"The only regret I've got is that my wife, the most important person in the world to me, didn't see me winning. She got caught up in the crowds about one kilometre from the finish line, but I'm sure she'll be watching it on television."
Hushovd, whose bid for the green jersey had been compromised by a crash earlier in the race, said Bennati's long drive for the line had caught him flat. "It's a pity, I was well positioned but I just couldn't get past Bennati in the closing metres," said the Norwegian. I'm happy because I wasn't too far away, but I really wanted to win this stage. I suffered in the Alps and the Pyrenees just to make sure I got here today.
"Never mind, I will be back next year."
Boonen was forced to abandon his last two Tour campaigns, but came to the race this year determined to make up for those setbacks. He admitted however that the finale to Sunday's stage, after he too suffered in the difficult mountains stages, had pushed his stress levels into the red.
"The legs were fine today, but the stress of racing around the Champs Elysees trying to hold on to the green jersey has taken it out of me," he said. "All the sprints I did during the Tour I did to win, but today was all about protecting the green jersey. It's taken it out of me and I'm glad it's over, but I'm super-happy."
© AFP 2007
Also see: stage 20 live report