PARIS (AP) - Alberto Contador won the doping-scarred Tour de France on Sunday, a new, young and unlikely winner for the three-week race shaken to its core by scandals.
The 24-year-old rider for the American Discovery Channel team was the youngest champion since Jan Ullrich of Germany in 1997. He also was the first Spaniard to win the crown since the last of Miguel Indurain's five titles in 1995.
His margin of victory - just 23 seconds ahead of Cadel Evans of Australia - was the second-narrowest in the Tour's 104-year history, after 2,200 miles of racing through Britain, Belgium, Spain and France.
"It's an extraordinary joy," said Contador, who kissed his winner's yellow jersey on the podium and thrust his arms ecstatically, the Arc de Triomphe in the background. Outside the Discovery team bus, staffers uncorked champagne.
"I think we've seen the future of Spanish cycling and perhaps international cycling," seven-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong said.
Another Discovery Channel rider, Levi Leipheimer of the United States, finished third, 31 seconds behind.
Contador, speaking through a translator, called his victory a "dream come true." In 2004, he suffered a brain aneurism while racing in Spain and collapsed with convulsions. He had surgery within hours, which doctors said prevented irreversible brain damage. They cited a congenital problem with a brain artery.
While in the hospital, Contador drew inspiration from a book about Armstrong, who survived testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain.
Asked on French television about his brain surgery, Contador took off his yellow helmet and showed a large scar running down the side of his head.
"It really marked me for life," Contador said, "but allowed me to better savor this moment."
Contador had seemed destined for second place until the Tour was hit by a bombshell just five days from the finish: the ouster of race leader Michael Rasmussen. His Rabobank team accused the Dane of having lied about his whereabouts before the Tour to evade doping controls.
Discovery sports manager Johan Bruyneel, who mentored Armstrong's seven wins, did not have a "nice feeling" after this victory.
"You don't want to win like that," Bruyneel told The Associated Press. "The way things were, most likely he (Rasmussen) would have won the Tour de France."
Rasmussen's departure catapulted Contador into the race lead, Evans of Predictor-Lotto to the runner-up spot and Leipheimer to third. Those standings held through the closing four days - including a thrilling time trial Saturday that Leipheimer won and the 91-mile final ride Sunday to Paris' fan-lined Champs-Elysees from Marcoussis. The stage, won by Italy's Daniele Bennati, took the pack through Chatenay-Malabry, home to the French anti-doping lab.
Contador high-fived and hugged his teammates after crossing the line. His original goal was to take the white jersey for the best young rider. In the end, he got both white and yellow jerseys.
In Contador's home town of Pinto just outside Madrid, hundreds gathered in the main square to watch his victory on a giant TV screen. They set off firecrackers, waved Spanish flags and splashed in a fountain.
Contador was a new star for a race searching for a successor to Armstrong, who retired in 2005, and which is struggling to repair its credibility after two straight years marred by doping.
The 2006 winner, Floyd Landis, did not defend his crown because of doping charges hanging over him. This Tour turned into a circus after it emerged that Rasmussen was competing despite missing doping controls in May and June, and after Kazakh star Alexandre Vinokourov - a pre-race favorite - and Cristian Moreni of Italy failed doping tests. They and their teams left the race, and police raided their hotels, searching for doping products.
Instead of putting the doping cloud left by Landis behind them, Tour organizers again found themselves having to contend daily with the issue. The feel-good factor generated by the race's July 7 start in London, England - watched by millions of fans - quickly faded.
A split emerged as Tour organizers blamed the sport's governing body, the UCI, for not telling them that Rasmussen had missed doping tests. The organizers said they would have prevented him from taking the start had they known. Some French newspapers declared the Tour dead and said it should be suspended until the sport cleans up. Some IOC members warned that more scandals could jeopardize cycling's place in the Olympics.
The first week of the Tour was dominated by sprinters and marked by crashes in the pack. Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland took the lead on the first day and wore the yellow jersey for the first week. The doping demon quickly returned.
First came news that Patrik Sinkewitz of Germany tested positive for the male hormone testosterone in a sample taken in June while he was training.
Then, over 48 dramatic hours in the last week, came the successive punches of Vinokourov's test for a banned blood transfusion, Moreni's positive test for testosterone and Rasmussen's ouster - a race-changing decision that emerged in the dead of night.
On Rasmussen's last day of racing before he was sent home, riders from French and German teams refused to ride off with him at the start, protesting all the scandals.
Vinokourov denied doping, although a follow-up test confirmed the positive result given from the first. Vinokourov has hired Landis' lawyer to defend him. Rasmussen also insisted he never used performance-enhancing drugs.
"Every day I'm going to wake up and think about not being allowed to win the Tour de France - the race that defines me as a cyclist," he told Danish TV. "I will never get over it ... I believe it equals getting a Picasso painting stolen. I was working on the greatest piece I could achieve and it was taken away from me."
Even Contador was not spared suspicions. He missed last year's Tour when his former team was disqualified because he and four other riders were implicated in a Spanish blood-doping investigation. Contador said Saturday his name mistakenly turned up in the Operation Puerto file, and cycling's ruling body attested to that.
"The drama today is that suspicion is everywhere," Tour president Christian Prudhomme told French TV.
Tour officials have been looking to the younger generation in the hope these riders have been less influenced by the doping rife in the late 1990s. Riders in their 20s - not in their 30s like Vinokourov and Rasmussen - swept top honors.
The winner of the polka-dot jersey given to the top mountain rider was Juan Mauricio Soler, a 24-year-old Colombian competing in his first Tour. Tom Boonen of Belgium, 28, earned his first green jersey as the best sprinter in four Tour appearances. Bennati, who also won a stage Thursday, is 26. He said he wept after winning the sprint on the Champs-Elysees.
"I still can't believe it," Bennati said. "I am very, very happy. ... My career starts today."