Spaniard Alberto Contador now has two things in common with Lance Armstrong, but the exploit of winning the Tour de France's yellow jersey is what he wants to remember most. Contador secured his first overall victory in the race after Sunday's 20th and final stage to Paris, which he finished with a 23-sec lead on Australian Cadel Evans.
Only three years ago, the Discovery Channel rider was not even considered a contender for his local criterium race in Madrid following what turned out to be a providential accident.
A crash in the Tour of Asturias stage race in 2004 saw Contador end up in hospital, where doctors discovered he was about to suffer a brain haemorrhage. After a life-saving operation, he returned to training six months later and soon began fulfilling the promise first shown by his under-23 national time trial crown, when he was still only 19 years old.
Having battled cancer to come back and win the race seven years in a row, Armstrong would empathise with the trials Contador endured. But while the Spaniard admitted the story of Armstrong's long fightback from illness proved an inspiration, he is keen to write his own chapter in history.
"Lance was a role model for me. I read his book in the hospital when I was recovering," said Contador on Saturday after his fifth place finish in the race against the clock which virtually secured his overall victory on Sunday. "(But) the only thing we have in common is a victory on the Tour de France, although he's got seven and I only have one so far."
After leaving hospital, Contador was called up to the ONCE team run by Manolo Saiz, who, in the past year, has become 'persona non grata' in the sport due to his links to the 'Operation Puerto' doping affair. Contador went from strength to strength, with a series of professional victories in 2005 which culminated with a respectable 31st on his Tour debut.
The year 2006, however, was less rosy for Contador.
After stage wins in the Tour of Romandie and a stage in the Tour of Switzerland, his entire Liberty-Seguros team, including Kazakhstan's Alexandre Vinokourov, was evicted from the Tour de France after five of their riders were implicated in the Puerto affair. Contador was later cleared of any involvement by a Spanish court.
A day before his victory here on Sunday, French newspaper Le Monde made claims that Contador's name was still linked to the Puerto affair. The Spaniard claims he is "100 percent clean".
"I was in the wrong team at the wrong time and somehow my name got among the documents, but the UCI (International Cycling Union) corrected the mistake and now I've got no link to Puerto," said Contador.
Bruyneel makes it eight Tour wins
A superb climber who has shown on both of the Tour's time trials that he can also race against the clock, Contador's triumph on the Champs Elysees is a timely one for his team manager Johan Bruyneel. The Belgian, who thanks to Armstrong and Contador has now won eight of the past nine editions of race, is looking for a new sponsor after Discovery's recent decision to pull out at the end of the season.
Bruyneel meanwhile waved off the suspicion surrounding his star rider.
"As soon as a rider races fast, he's a suspect," said the Belgian. "But I know what Alberto is worth. I know his qualities and I've seen how hard he works at training. The people who suspect him had better buckle up, because he's going to be around for a long time yet."
Spain, which has become disaffected with the sport due to the numerous damaging doping scandals, will be feting their first home winner since Miguel Indurain won the last of his five consecutive yellow jerseys in 1995.
Contador looks to have many good years ahead, but the Spaniard, having looked death in the face, wants to take it one year at a time.
"A lot of riders before me have won the Tour without coming so close to death," he said. "It's not the right time for me to look so far into the future."
Spanish press salutes Contador
The Spanish press wrote on Monday that Contador represents the hope of a "new cycling".
"Champion of hope" wrote sports daily AS on its front page below a photo of the cyclist wearing a red and yellow Spanish flag around his neck taken after he won the three-week race on Sunday.
"Contador was crowned in Paris as the symbol of the new cycling," it added.
The rider for the American Discovery Channel team was the first Spaniard to win the crown since the last of Miguel Indurain's five titles in 1995 and the ninth Spaniard to win cycling's biggest event since 1959.
"The triumph of the dream," wrote daily newspaper El Mundo.
"Alberto Contador wins a Tour de France that was plagued by scandals," the paper said, adding the Spaniard "is at the head of a new cycling that needs to get rid of these permanent cases of doping.
The 94th Tour de France was hit by four doping scandals, including one which led to the forcible exit of Danish race leader Michael Rasmussen, leaving Contador in front with four days left to race.
"Contador 'the saviour'," wrote conservative daily newspaper ABCwhich said the rider "had become a reference of the new cycling after the doping scandals."
"Contador becomes a legend," wrote sports daily Marca, adding he "has become a new pearl of the worldwide platoon of riders after winning his first Tour de France.
"I hope my victory will breathe fresh air to cycling," Contador said after the race in comments splashed on the headline of El Pais.
© AFP 2007