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JACKI LYDEN, host:

After a scandal-plagued week, the legendary cycling race, the Tour de France, ended on an upbeat today. The Spanish rider, Alberto Contador, won the race just 23 seconds ahead of an Australian rider.

Contador is just 24 years old, one of the youngest winners ever. And he won by the second smallest margin in the history of the race. And as far as anyone knows right now, he isn't taking performance-enhancing drugs.

Anita Elash reports from Paris.

ANITA ELASH: There was a lot of optimism when the Tour de France started from London this year. But that disappeared at the beginning of this week. The leader, Michael Rasmussen, and two other riders were dismissed because of allegations they were involved in doping. The European press declared the Tour dead.

(Soundbite of cheers)

ELASH: But at the finish line on the Champs-Elysees in Paris today, it was obvious that rumors of the Tour's demise were premature. Fans lined up, four and five deep, to cheer the riders on.

(Soundbite of cheers)

ELASH: And although everyone was talking about drugs, no one was prepared to let this year's scandal spoil today's race. Greg Sharpe(ph) was here from England.

Mr. GREG SHARPE (Tour de France Spectator): It's terribly exciting. It's been one of the best years this year was for the race because there was no overall contender to start with.

ELASH: The Tour de France is the most grueling bicycle race. It covers more than 2,100 miles up and down the Alps and the Pyrenees. Spectator Pascal Delarue(ph) doesn't think anyone could ride this race without drugs.

Mr. PASCAL DELARUE (Tour de France Spectator): (French Spoken)

ELASH: He says he believes the riders have always taken some kind of drugs. The difference is now we talk about it.

That's not the line the Tour's organizers are taking. After Rasmussen was dismissed this week, they went into crisis mode and promised that next year's Tour would be free from drugs. Others have also been trying to make the point that a drug-free Tour de France is possible. One of them was Dion Preuvois(ph), a journalist and a cyclist who rode the entire Tour without performance-enhancing drugs, just to prove it could be done. He arrived in Paris last night.

Mr. DION PREUVOIS (Cyclist and Journalist): (French Spoken)

ELASH: We (unintelligible) but we suffered, he says. Who else have you seen the doing the modern race suffer?

Bill McGann, author of the book "The Story of the Tour de France," said the Tour would be slower without drugs. The performance would not be consistent from day to day. Still it would be no less exciting. He applauds the Tour organizers' crackdown.

Mr. BILL McGANN (Author, "The Story of the Tour de France"): Well, I think that what's going on is appropriate to make a clean future. It looks like the corporate sponsors don't want to have their names linked with doping scandals. It looks like the riders, many of them, are tired of it. And it looks like the attitude of the public is changing and they're less tolerant of it. I think the atmosphere is quite different, say, from 10 years ago.

(Soundbite of cheers)

ELASH: Despite McGann's optimism, many analysts say it could take several years before the Tour de France is completely drug-free. But whatever happens, one thing is clear: People here don't ever want to see the Tour de France die.

Unidentified Man: (French Spoken)

ELASH: It's the magic of the tour, said this man who came to Paris from the south of France to watch the race. We love the bicycle here. It's a tradition that is more than a hundred years old and we love to come out and watch, even if they are taking drugs.

For NPR News, I'm Anita Elash in Paris.

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