Marco Pantani rode in triumph along the Champs-Elysees, proving he indeed was a champion but still no match for the drug scandal that enveloped the Tour de France.
Pantani is the first Italian winner since Felice Gimondi in 1965. He also is the first to win both the Tour of Italy and the Tour de France in one year since Spain's Miguel Indurain did so five years ago."To win the Giro and the Tour de France is something my country has been waiting for a long time," Pantani said. "This day will remain one of the most important days in my life."
Germany's Jan Ullrich, the 1997 winner, finished second, 3 minutes, 21 seconds behind. Bobby Julich of Glenwood Springs, Colo., was third, 4:08 back - the best finish by an American since Greg LeMond won his third crown in 1990.
Julich, riding with the French Cofidis team, joined LeMond as the only Americans to finish in the top three.
"This year I had little chance to win," Julich said. "Pantani was on another planet. When he attacks the mountains, no one can match him."
This was a race in which many riders felt they were being treated as criminals during the ongoing drug investigation. Once, they delayed the start of a stage by two hours. Another time they held hands in protest crossing the finish line, prompting organizers to wipe out the entire stage.
"No matter what happened here, it was my dream," Julich said. "Different things come about and try to mess with you. But it's the strong people that persevere and don't let it bother them."
Tom Steels of Belgium took the 21st and final stage on the Champs-Elysees. Steels won four stages, including the first in Ireland.
Pantani, riding for the Mercatone Uno team, finished the 91-mile stage from Melun to Paris in the pack in 45th place. A flat tire held him up for less than a minute.
Italian President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro sent Pantani a message offering "the thanks of the Italian people for having given Italy this exceptional success."
Pantani's tributes are just beginning. A wine shop in Alessandria in northern Italy dedicated a Piedmont wine after the rider. In Cesnatico, Italy, a banner on a building read "Pantani flies high." Some 2,000 people took to bicycles to celebrate their hometown hero.
On Sunday, it was a time to luxuriate in the traditional nine laps up and down the Champs-Elysees, from the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde.
Usually the finale of the grueling competition is cause for revelry. But this year, there was a sense that the end could not come soon enough for a pack whose numbers dwindled as the race went on.
Nearly each day since the start on July 11 in Dublin, there have been new drug revelations, police searches and rider protests.
Only 14 of the original 21 teams ended the race; six dropped out and one team, Festina, was expelled.