After three weeks dominated by a drugs scandal which at one stage threatened to force the cancellation of the event, Marco Pantani rode across the finishing line to give Italy its first winner for 33 years.
"I may have won the cleanest Tour," he said, referring to the crisis that has brought arrests and confessions of drug-taking as French justice clamped down on doping. "Because of the fear of police this undoubtedly has been a `clean' race.
"This Tour was more difficult because of the doping. We had a lot of psychological problems, and we were all very nervous. There is nothing so difficult as cycling every day for three weeks."
Any lasting doubts as to whether the French public had become disenchanted with their most celebrated sporting event were dispelled as a crowd estimated at around 300,000 turned out on a rainy afternoon to welcome home the 96 finishers. Only half of the starting line-up made it to the finish after six teams dropped out because of the doping investigation by French magistrates and police.
After 3,711 kilometres racing across France, over the Pyrenees and the Alps, it was Pantani who claimed victory. The little Italian, who experienced a minor drama on the Champs-Elysees yesterday when he suffered a puncture, beat last year's winner, Jan Ullrich of Germany, by 3min 21sec. The American Bobby Julich was third, more than four minutes behind. Belgium's Tom Steels took the final stage here, with the Italian Stefano Zanini second and Stuart O'Grady of Australia third.
Eight weeks ago Pantani had been feted in pink, the colours of the Giro d'Italia victor, in Milan's Parco Sempione.
"I decided to race both tours with the idea of winning one. I never thought of both," the shaven-headed racer said. "In the Giro I wasted a lot of energy, but I came to the Tour relaxed and I raced in a more intelligent manner."
Pantani, who is the first Italian in 46 years to win the Tour de France and the Giro d'Italia in the same year, has already been offered a three- year contract worth 1,000,000 French francs (about pounds 105,000) a month by another Italian team, Mapei.
Pantani's celebrations, however, were tinged with regret because Luciano Pezzi was not there to share in his great moment. The president of Pantani's Mercatone Uno team died two weeks before the Tour opened in Dublin. "It was my dream to take the yellow jersey, and Pezzi told me that I had the characteristics to achieve it," Pantani said. "If only he could be here I would be so happy"
Pezzi was a teammate of Fausto Coppi when the latter completed his second Tour-Giro double in 1952. Thirteen years later Pezzi was the team manager who gave a last-minute Tour place to Felice Gimondi, who then became the last Italian to win the Tour.
Pezzi recognised in Pantani the same fire and desire that had made Coppi the Champion of Champions (Il Campionissimo). He offered him a contract as Pantani sat out a whole season with a broken left leg and not much hope.
His faith in the broken athlete has been repaid, and Italy is reliving the legend. Yesterday Pantani, whose head bandana, earring and beard have earned him the nickname of Il Pirata, boarded the Paris podium to don the winner's yellow jersey before a bubbling crowd laced with red, white and green flags.
It was the culmination of many years of promise through a chequered and troubled career which took off four years ago. Miguel Indurain had achieved the Tour-Giro double in 1992 and '93, but in 1994 he could only watch as 57 kilos of Italian talent danced his way over the Dolomites. Pantani had arrived.
Pantani still has a long way to go to match the achievements of Coppi, but their careers have close, if agonising, comparisons. Pantani was the first to cross the daunting Galibier mountain last week, 46 years after Coppi had done so on his way to his second Tour victory. Pantani is 28; Coppi was 30 when he claimed his first double.
In 1951 Coppi's brother, Serse, died in an accident near the finish of the Milan-Turin race. Forty-four years on Pantani collided head-on with a jeep in the same race seven kilometres from the chequered flag.
Pantani's shattered left shin kept him away from a bike for more than five months and his return was interrupted by further surgery. It was 16 months before he could impress again on a bike. In the 1997 Giro he looked to be back on course until a cat ran across his path. A battered Pantani was escorted to the finish by his teammates and he took no further part in the race. Coppi recorded 151 victories but spent 435 days sidelined through a series of fractures.
Where Pantani can get one over Coppi is in his musical talent. During his convalescence he sang the theme tune for the 1996 television presentation of the Giro d'Italia. He has also written a song about the footballer Diego Maradona.
There are sure to be drinks on the house at the snack bar run by Pantani's parents at the Adriatic resort of Cesenatico, but it was not open yesterday. Most of Italy seemed to be on the Champs-Elysees, soaked from a downpour, but warming to the approach of their conquering hero.
RESULTS AND STANDINGS
(after 20 stages; 3,711km)
1 Marco Pantani (It) Mercatone Uno
92hr 49min 46sec
2 Jan Ullrich (Ger) Telekom +3:21
3 Bobby Julich (US) Cofidis +4:08
4 C Rinero (Fr) Cofidis +9:16
5 M Boogerd (Neth) Rabobank +11:26
6 J-C Robin (Fr) US Postal +14:57
7 R Meier (Swit) Cofidis +15:13
8 D Nardello (It) Mapei +16:07
9 G di Grande (It) Mapei +17:35
10 A Merckx (Bel) Polti +17:39
11 B Riis (Den) Telekom +19:10
12 D Baranowski (Pol) US Postal +19:58
13 S Heulot (Fr) FDJ +20:57
14 L Piepoli (It) Saeco +22:45
15 B Hamburger (Den) Casino +26:39
16 K van de Wouwer (Bel) Lotto +27:20
17 K Livingston (US) Cofidis +34:03
18 J Jaksche (Ger) Polti +35:41
19 P Farazijn (Bel) Lotto +36:10
20 A Teteriouk (Kazak) Lotto +37:03
20th and final stage (1475km,Melun to Paris): 1 T Steels (Bel) Mapei 3hr 44min 36sec; 2 S Zanini (It) Mapei; 3 S O'Grady (Aus) GAN; 4 G Hincapie (US) US Postal; 5 E Zabel (Ger) Telekom; 6 R McEwen (Aus) Rabobank; 7 M Traversoni (It) Mercatone Uno; 8 F Simon (Fr) GAN; 9 D Nazon (Fr) FDJ; 10 A Turicchia (It) Asics; 11 A Vierhouten (Neth) Rabobank; 12 M Mori (It) Saeco; 13 C Vasseur (Fr) GAN; 14 Bo Hamburger (Den) Casino; 15 R Brasi (It) Polti; 16 P Chanteur (Fr) Casino; 17 J Durand (Fr) Casino; 18 M Backstedt (Swe) GAN; 19 F Andreu (US) US Postal; 20 V Djavanian (Rus) Big Mat. Selected: 40 J Ullrich (Ger) Telekom; 45 M Pantani (It) Mercatone Uno, all same time.
Points: 1 E Zabel (Ger) Telekom 327pts; 2 S O'Grady (Aus) GAN 230; 3 T Steels (Bel) Mapei 221.
Mountain Grand Prix: 1 C Rinero (Fr) Cofidis 200pts; 2 M Pantani (It) Mercatone Uno 175; 3 A Elli (It) Casino 165.
Team overall: 1 Cofidis 278hr 29min 58sec; 2 Casino +29:09; 3 US Postal +41:40.