- The Washington Times - Monday, July 27, 2009

PARIS | Lance Armstrong’s children were dressed in yellow. He was not.

When the seven-time Tour de France champion returned to the podium Sunday, his family was there. His fans were there. And so was rival and teammate Alberto Contador - wearing the coveted yellow jersey.

Four years after his seventh Tour win, Armstrong capped his return with an impressive third-place finish. He had his whole clan on hand - including baby Max sporting bright yellow shoes.

They were among the massive crowd that poured out onto Paris’ most famous avenue for the finish - Norwegians in Viking helmets, flag-waving Britons and an American in a stars-and-stripes top hat among them.

Contador cruised down the Champs-Elysees to win the Tour for a second time after 2,141 miles in three weeks of racing. He repelled many challenges in the mountains, excelled in the two time-trials - winning a pivotal race against the clock in the 18th stage - and won the first Alpine stage.

Andy Schleck of Luxembourg, Contador’s toughest rival in the mountains, was second overall. Contador’s biggest battle, however, was against his Astana team.

“It has been an especially difficult Tour for me, but I savor it and it is more special because of it,” he said.

The body language on the winner’s podium said it all. As Armstrong, 37, climbed onto the stage, he gave a perfunctory handshake to his teammate Contador, then heartily grabbed Schleck’s hand with both hands.

As Contador took the victor’s bowl, Armstrong cast a sideways glance at what had long been his spoils; he gave only a cursory glance to his own crystal trophy.

Asked on French TV what the hardest moment in this race, Contador said: “It was in the [team] hotel.”

Only 26, Contador already is one of cycling’s greats, having won all three Grand Tours of France, Italy and Spain.

Armstrong’s comeback after 3 1/2 years of retirement raised questions about who would lead Astana during cycling’s most prestigious race. And those questions remained through much of the Tour as tensions mounted over who was the No. 1 rider.

“We are totally incompatible,” Contador said. “In the end, Armstrong will go his way, and I’ll go mine.”

On Sunday, they were both headed for Paris and the winner’s podium.

They shared a glass of champagne on the ride into the city, only this time it was to celebrate Contador’s win - and their win as a team.

“I did everything I could,” Armstrong said before the final stage. “For me, and even more for my kids, it’s probably a healthy thing for them to see, because they saw their Dad that never lost, and the kids in their class [say], ‘Your Dad never loses.’ So it’s good for them to see Dad get third and still be cool with that and still be happy.”

By the end of the race, Armstrong was talking less of squabbling within Astana and more about Contador’s greatness as a rider. Despite the team tensions, Contador said he enjoyed this victory more than in 2007. Four days from the finish that year, leader Michael Rasmussen of Denmark was sent home for lying about his whereabouts during pre-Tour doping controls.

“In the key stages of this Tour, I found myself feeling more at ease than I did in 2007. But in situations outside of racing, I didn’t feel so comfortable,” Contador told Spanish broadcaster TVE.

After Oscar Pereiro’s victory in 2006 and Carlos Sastre’s in 2008, the Tour has been won by a Spaniard for four straight years.

Contador, who had to sit out last year because Astana was banned, finished in 85 hours, 48 minutes, 35 seconds. Schleck was 4:11 minutes behind; Armstrong was 5:24 back. After three straight Tours decided by less than a minute, Contador’s margin of victory was the largest since Armstrong collected his last title in 2005.

Schleck, 24, won the white jersey awarded to the Tour’s best young rider. Franco Pellizotti of Italy picked up the polka-dot jersey given to the race’s King of the Mountains. Thor Hushovd of Norway beat the 24-year-old Briton Mark Cavendish for the green jersey given to the Tour’s best sprinter.

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