PARIS — Alberto Contador won his third Tour de France in four years Sunday, heralding the arrival of a new cycling superstar even as seven-time champion Lance Armstrong finished the race for the last time.
The Spaniard, 27, sealed the victory after holding off a challenge from Andy Schleck of Luxembourg in Saturday's individual time trial. Their battle for the title provided a glimpse of what should become the Tour's next great rivalry. They raced wheel-to-wheel until separated in Stage 15, when Schleck's chain broke on a climb in the Pyrenees, then again on a lung-busting duel up the Col du Tourmalet that was the highlight of the race.
"I suffered to get this result," said Contador, before hoisting the victor's cup with Paris' Arc de Triomphe in the background. "I don't have words to express what I feel."
Schleck finished 39 seconds back. Denis Menchov of Russia was third overall.
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Armstrong completed his last Tour in 23rd place, 39:20 after Contador.
Mark Cavendish of Britain claimed his fifth stage victory this Tour and 15th in his career in a sprint at the end of the 20th stage — largely a ceremonial 63.7-mile course from Longjumeau to Paris.
Contador exchanged hugs with his Astana teammates, who began chanting "Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole" on the Champs-Elysees, where thousands of fans lined the route to cheer. He joins Greg LeMond, Louison Bobet and Philippe Thys as a three-time Tour champion.
Armstrong is the most successful Tour rider with seven wins in a row (1999-2005).
Contador sipped champagne during the leisurely ride and held up three fingers to signal his third Tour win. His Astana team was prepared to quash any attempt for Schleck to break away Sunday — and they had a playful ride.
Near the end, Contador, known as "El Pistolero" for his trademark finger-firing gesture, sprayed photographers with a squirt gun.
But very little about this tour could be called fun.
The July 3 prologue in Rotterdam began with rain-splattered and oil-slickened roads that brought down at least half the pack. Stage 3 saw bone-jarring cobblestone patches, one that punctured Armstrong's tire and dealt his title hopes an early blow.
Not even halfway through the race, the show between Schleck and Contador emerged, when they finished ahead of the other favorites as the Tour left the Alps.
The decisive move of their battle began in Stage 15, when Schleck launched an attack on Contador on the Port de Bales ascent in the Pyrenees.
The Luxembourg rider's chain came off and the Spaniard sped on — taking the yellow jersey off of Schleck and gaining 39 seconds. That would be his margin of overall victory.
Some cycling aficionados cried foul, saying Contador had broken the sport's unwritten code about not taking advantage of unlucky breaks, especially when the rival was wearing yellow.
Schleck took one more run at Contador in Stage 17, on a breakaway up Col du Tourmalet. The Spaniard ultimately yielded the stage win, but never strayed far from Schleck's rear wheel.
The last fight came Saturday, when Schleck rode what he called the time trial of his life. But it wasn't enough to close the gap on Contador, who excels in the discipline.
"This year, it didn't work. I have a rendezvous in one year with that color there," Schleck said, pointing to Contador's yellow shirt. "I am better than last year because then it was 4 minutes," he added of his deficit to the Spaniard as runner-up a year ago.
With his victory, Contador became only the second rider in 20 years to win the Tour without a single stage win.
Alessandro Petacchi of Italy captured the green jersey given to the race's top sprinter; Anthony Charteau of France won the polka-dot jersey as the best climber; Schleck takes home the white jersey as best young rider for a third straight year, and RadioShack won the team title.