By Laura Weislo with additional reporting from Brecht Decaluwé
Alberto Contador made the 146 kilometre journey from Marcoussis to Paris safely on Sunday, winning the 3569.9 kilometre long Tour de France by a wafer-thin margin of 23 seconds over Australian Cadel Evans. With his victory, he adds his name to the history books along with just four other Spanish Tour winners: Federico Bahamontes, Luis Ocaña, Pedro Delgado, and the great Miguel Indurain, and sends the ninth title to Spain.
Many a Spaniard has tried to live up to the name of Indurain and fallen short, but at his young age, Contador has the talent and ambition to stand up next to 'Big Mig'. The slightly built 24 year-old has a very different style than the powerful five time Tour champion, and came into this Tour not as a team leader, but as a domestique for his American leader Levi Leipheimer and dark horse candidate for victory in Paris.
"I had not come to the Tour thinking that I could win it. It is true that, after my victory in Paris-Nice last March, I knew that I was able to pull off other beautiful things but it is always very difficult to imagine a scenario like this," Contador admitted following the final parade lap in Paris.
Contador pulled off a magnificent stage win atop the Plateau de Beille, pulling himself into second overall when he put 1'52 into Evans. After three days of battling with Rabobank's Michael Rasmussen on the climbs in the Pyrénées, he had all but resigned himself to second overall when he trailed the Rasmussen by a virtually insurmountable 3'10 after the final mountain stage. But the winds of fate turned against the Dane, and Contador inherited the yellow jersey when the Dane was withdrawn from the race under a cloud of suspicion that he evaded out of competition controls prior to the Tour.
Going into the final decisive stage, the 55.5 kilometre time trial on stage 18, Contador would be in for a nail-biting battle with Evans for the yellow jersey. He led the Predictor-Lotto rider by just 1'50 at the start, but rose to the challenge and held onto the lead by just 23 seconds. "I did not know that I would still be in contention for victory after the time trial on the penultimate stage. That race in stage 19 was definitely the hardest of the Tour for me," Contador said. "I was afraid, but I was preparing for it one day at a time. And, when it mattered most, I was able to deliver a good result."
He certainly delivered the time trial of his budding career, but his lead was nearly eclipsed not only by Evans, but also by his own team-mate Leipheimer, who obliterated the time trial and pulled himself to within eight seconds of Evans. With two Discovery Channel riders on the podium, the team cinched the best team award - something which surprisingly was a first for the team, despite Lance Armstrong's seven Tour victories.
Contador's team-mate and designated protector George Hincapie led the yellow jersey into the final laps of the Champs Élysées just as he had done for Armstrong seven times before, but was able to take in a view that was new to him - the vista from the podium in Paris. "It's actually my first team classification victory," Hincapie said to Cyclingnews. The American champion was certain that the Tour hadn't seen the last of Contador. "There's a good chance we'll see him there a lot more. He's an amazing talent and he's got a good chance to win a lot more Tours."