As thousands of his fellow Danes cheered wildly, Bjarne Riis won his first Tour de France on Sunday, ending Spaniard Miguel Indurain’s bid for an unprecedented six straight victories.
“It’s the biggest thing in my whole life,” said Riis, who had tears in his eyes after the race. “Everything went perfect for me in the Tour.”
But he won’t get much time to rest. Riis will be welcomed as a national hero Monday during a parade in downtown Copenhagen before he flies across the ocean for his next quest.
“Now Atlanta will be the next big thing,” he said of his trip to the Olympics.
Riis and Indurain will be among professional cyclists competing in the Olympics for the first time in the road race July 31 and the individual time trial Aug. 3.
Riis took several laps on the Champs Elysees following the race, waving a large Danish flag and acknowledging thousands of Danish fans.
“This is a fantastic day for me,” said Riis, who received a private letter from the Danish prime minister after the race. “This is the greatest day of my life.”
Italy’s Fabio Baldato won the final stage of cycling’s most prestigious race, which began in the Netherlands on June 29. After a 92-mile sprint from Palaiseau to Paris, the cyclists sped eight laps in front of hundreds of thousands of fans on the Champs Elysees in downtown Paris.
Riis won his first Tour with the help of his strong Telekom team and aggressive attacks in the climbing stages.
Germany’s Jan Ullrich, 22, also of the Telekom team, finished second overall, just 1:41 behind Riis, in his first Tour.
France’s Richard Virenque finished third overall, the first French racer to finish among the top three since Laurent Fignon was second to American Greg Lemond in 1989.
Indurain, the five-time champion from Spain, finished 11th overall.
Americans fared poorly in this year’s Tour. Lance Armstrong pulled out of the race during the sixth stage, and George Hincapie left after crashing in the 14th stage.
Only Frankie Andreu of Dearborn, Mich., completed the race, finishing 111th overall at 2:48:45 back.
Riis, 32, is the first Dane to win the Tour. “It’s the biggest news in Denmark today, and in the last several days, bigger than the Atlanta Olympics,” said Ernest Moller, a Danish network television correspondent. “Half the people in the country are watching the Tour de France on TV. The other half are here, watching on the Champs-Elysees.”
Among them was Kim Knudsen, who paid $350 to fly to Paris from Copenhagen with 50 other Danes early Sunday.
“Riis is a hero,” said Knudsen, whose face was painted with the stripes of the Danish flag. “We decided last night to do it after we saw an ad in a newspaper. We want to be here to cheer on Riis.”