Posted: Thursday July 13, 2006 7:19PM; Updated: Thursday July 13, 2006 7:23PM
There was a lot of that going around on the Discovery bus. Going into the Tour, it was a subject of discussion in group rides across the U.S.: who would be Discovery's leader? Hincapie? Or the promising Yaroslav Popovych? Or perhaps, if neither of them were on form, Paolo Savoldelli, who won a grand tour -- the Giro d'Italia, in '05.
As we know, Hincapie blew up on the penultimate climb, when the T-Mobiles -- jumping the gun by approximately one mountain pass -- dropped the hammer (only to have it dropped on them on the Pla de Beret, where the team's top threat, Andreas Kloden, lost 91 seconds to Landis, whom now trails by 2 1/2 minutes. Kloden wrote a fair-sized check with his mouth at a press conference last Monday. It's looking like his account may have insufficient funds).
Popovych, said to be "not feeling well," lost 6:25 to the leaders -- but still finished some 17 minutes ahead of Savodelli. All in all, a grim day for the men in teal. At the start in Tarbes this morning, I told Discovery director Johan Bruyneel that he seemed to be smiling more than in previous Tours, and asked him about the different vibe at this one. "Before," he said, "we were expected to win. Now, we are trying to win. There's a big difference."
He'll be smiling a little less tonight.
Landis, meanwhile, could not stop grinning as he made his way through the "mix zone" beyond the finish line, a solicitous Tour official positioning a chair for his use at each of the different "stations" he stopped at.
"Yeah, that's right," he told me, when I gave him grief about the chair. "I get a chair. It comes with the yellow jersey."
Seven years ago, the man in the yellow jersey was racing as a "privateer." Which is to say, the man wearing the yellow jersey competed without an official team jersey -- on account of his not having a team. He'd moved to Irvine, Calif., to race mountain bikes, and had not one but two teams fold under him. He took up road racing not because he liked it -- "I still wanted to be a mountain biker," he says, "but no one was paying me to do that anymore" - but because he could feed himself and make the rent by driving around the west with his buddy Will Geoghegan -- wreaking havoc at critieriums and stage races, attacking right out of gate, prompting more seasoned riders to ask, "Who the hell are those guys?"
Finally, the director of the Mercury team grew weary of watching Landis humble his riders, and hired the ex-mountain biker. Mercury folded halfway through the '02 season, and Landis was rescued by the US Postal Service. It wasn't a match made in heaven. He spent three seasons doing the bidding of Bruyneel and Lance Armstrong. Toeing the line isn't a strong suit for Landis, who has enormous talent and issues with authority.
After his second season riding for the Posties, Landis crashed on a training ride in Temecula, Calif., fracturing his right hip. One year and two surgeries later, he was diagnosed with a degenerative hip condition -- a development he only revealed in a press conference on Monday. Landis reported that he is considering getting a hip replacement after this season.
As his physiologist, Allen Lim, told me two days ago, "There were stages in last year's Tour where Floyd would finish, we would go on the bus and he would say, 'Al, I'm in so much pain right now I think I'm going to vomit.'"
Landis's decision to discuss his condition took many in this very traditional sport by surprise. Was he giving himself an out, in case he blows up later in the race? As Bruyneel said the next day, it is more conventional to mask weakness than it is to announce it to the world.
Sitting in the lobby of the Bayonne Mercure Hotel on Wednesday morning, Landis responded this way to Bruyneel's observation: "It's not a weakness in any way. I think I've won more races than anyone else in the peloton this year. It's not an excuse, because it's not a weakness. It's something that happened to me and I have to deal with it."
Was your hand forced, I asked him. "No, not at all," he said. "But I like to be unpredictable. Johan is iritated because he had no idea this was coming. That's what annoys him most. He likes to believe he's Mr. Gossip, and this took him completely by surprise. He had no idea, and I had (avascular necrosis) when I was still with him, and he still didn't know about it."
I happened to be visiting Landis last April when he took a call from a Discovery official.
"They've called a few times," he allows. "I only talk to them until they get to the point of why they're calling, and then I remember that I have an urgent project I have to do. I'm very busy when I'm at home."
The way things went down on the way to the Pla de Beret, you can't blame Discovery for trying.