Alberto Contador wins his third Tour de France title

PARIS — Spaniard Alberto Contador claimed his third Tour de France title on Sunday as seven-time champion Lance Armstrong made his final exit from the race.

The 27-year-old Contador stayed safe in the main bunch; and the last stage, over 63.7 miles from Longjumeau, went to British cyclist Mark Cavendish for the second year in a row, although Cavendish ended up second to Alessandro Petacchi in the competition for the green jersey, which goes to the best sprinter.

Over three weeks, Contador showed some weaknesses in the mountains and almost cracked in the final time trial, but it was enough for him to beat Luxembourg’s Andy Schleck by 39 seconds. Russian Denis Menchov took third place, 2:01 off the pace.

Contador said on the podium: “I’m happy, very happy. I’ve had difficult days, from a psychological and a physical point of view. Thank you to those who supported me. I would have wanted to be better, but I suffered a lot to get this result and words cannot describe what I feel right now.”

The victory kept the Spanish flag flying high on the Champs-Elysees following triumphs by Oscar Pereiro in 2006, Contador in 2007, Carlos Sastre in 2008 and Contador again last year.

The Spaniard took the overall leader’s yellow jersey when he benefited from Schleck’s chain problem Monday.

He gained 39 seconds in the process, the exact time that separated him from Schleck at the end of the Tour.

“It did not work out this time but next year, I will come back here in this color,” said Schleck, who won the white jersey for the best under-25 rider, as he pointed toward Contador’s yellow jersey.

Armstrong, 38, riding his last Tour de France, finished 23rd overall after losing all chance in the first mountain stage. But he drew some consolation as his RadioShack squad won the team competition.

That helped make up for an incident that delayed the start of Sunday’s stage by 15 minutes when all RadioShack riders sported black jerseys with the No. 28.

They were expressing their support for the estimated 28 million cancer-affected people in the world and for Armstrong’s Livestrong campaign to fight the disease.

But organizers reminded them that competition rules say that the same jersey should be used from the prologue to the final stage, and they were forced to change clothing before the start.

“The idea was to talk about the significance, the magnitude of the disease. Unfortunately the commissars did not agree with this,” said Armstrong.

“But in the end, we got more attention than we expected.”

As usual, the last stage, one of the shortest in Tour history, was effectively a parade before the peloton hit Paris.

Contador was seen drinking champagne with his Astana teammates. The champion and Schleck even faked attacks on each other for a while before shaking hands and returning to the main pack.

It was an ironic summary of a Tour in which they never really challenged each other.

At the finish, Cavendish outsprinted Petacchi and New Zealand’s Julian Dean in impressive fashion to notch his fifth stage win in this year’s race.

“It didn’t start too well. In the first week I was wondering what was happening,” Cavendish said. “But we continued to work and then it went better.”

Petacchi edged Cavendish for the green jersey by 11 points. France’s Anthony Charteau won the polka dot jersey for the best climber.