There's something about Alberto Contador. He is opportunistic, as we discovered on July 19, watching him take the yellow jersey for good in the 15th stage of the Tour de France by attacking when his chief rival, Luxembourg's Andy Schleck, dropped his chain. Contador, it turns out, is a bit bashful as well. Introduced to Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz after stage 18 last Friday in Bordeaux, the Spanish rider found himself slightly tongue-tied. "Of course I've seen a lot of your films," he said, "but it's a little bit strange seeing you up close." Asked afterward if he'd scored Diaz's digits, a slightly flustered Contador exclaimed, "I didn't get that far!"
And that's O.K. In this sport the Spaniard has everyone else's number. On Sunday in Paris, Contador clinched cycling's Super Bowl for the second straight year and the third time in four years. At 27, he is the same age at which Lance Armstrong won the first of his seven Tours. The Astana leader has a strong chance of equaling the record of Armstrong, who finished a distant 23rd in his troubled farewell Tour.
Expect Contador's detractors to bludgeon him with the number 39 between now and next year's Grand Boucle. By attacking Schleck moments after the Saxo Bank rider lost his chain on a monstrous Pyrenean peak called the Port de Bal√®s—Schleck was forced to dismount to make the repair—Contador gained 39 seconds on him that day. His margin of victory in Paris? Thirty-nine seconds.
While the Marquess of Queensbury may not have approved, Contador's acceleration was justified. Had he slowed, there was no guarantee that Samuel Sànchez and Denis Menchov, the third- and fourth-place riders at the time, would've hit the brakes as well. More to the point, Schleck's mishap occurred as he was attacking Contador, who is not responsible for making sure his rivals know how to properly shift gears. Jeered by some fans, Contador recorded a kind of semiapology on YouTube. "Maybe I made a mistake," he allowed. "I'm sorry. I don't like things like what happened today."
Schleck publicly forgave the Spaniard—theirs remains one of the friendlier rivalries in all of sport—who also stood accused of lacking the élan, the flair, the panache of a true champion. That happens to every Tour winner who fails to win a stage en route to overall victory. And yet, with a stage win in his grasp at the summit of the Tourmalet on Thursday, Contador did not sprint Schleck to the finish despite clearly having the legs to do so. Confident of his overall victory, he gifted the stage to Schleck, who had ridden courageously.
It was a gracious gesture that boosted Contador in the court of public opinion. The good news for cycling is that the Schleck-Contador rivalry isn't going away. Just 25, Schleck proved himself Contador's equal in the mountains. And in the time trials the Spaniard appears to have reached a plateau, while Schleck continues to improve.
Schleck also got to hang with Diaz and Cruise, and he seemed more comfortable in the presence of Hollywood stars. He channeled one on Saturday, after conceding the race to his rival. Promised Schleck, "I'll be back."
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If prerace favorites Lance Armstrong (23rd place), Bradley Wiggins (24th), Cadel Evans (26th) and Ivan Basso (32nd) were this Tour's biggest disappointments, who were its most pleasant surprises? Chris Horner (RadioShack) was brought along to fetch bottles for Armstrong, but the likable 38-year-old Oregonian (below) finished 10th, tops among U.S. riders. Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Transitions) was shockingly strong in the mountains. His seventh-place finish was the best by a Canadian in 22 years. With his fifth-place finish, 27-year-old Belgian Jurgen Van den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto) was the revelation of this Tour. Then there were the French. Native sons combined for six stage wins (two by Sylvain Chavanel), the most by the French in 13 years.
FRANCOIS LENOIR/REUTERS (SCHLECK AND CONTADOR)
EASY RIDERS Contador (right) and Schleck are friendly foes—and their rivalry should invigorate cycling for years to come.
NATHALIE MAGNIEZ/AFP/GETTY IMAGES (HORNER)