First yellow jersey for Landis caps arduous journey
Posted: Thursday July 13, 2006 7:19PM; Updated: Thursday July 13, 2006 7:23PM
Floyd Landis hoists his stuffed lion and flowers while celebrating his yellow jersey.
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PLA-DE-BERET, Spain -- It's a long way from Pennsylvania Dutch country to the Pla de Beret, a glorious Pyrenean peak in Catalunya, Spain, where today's 11th stage of the Tour de France ended with Floyd Landis, the pride of Farmersville, Pa., as your new race leader. There will be time afterward to ask how Phonak Hearing Systems intends to defend the jersey that Landis took with his third-place finish on the Pla de Beret. That slog was the fifth and final categorized climb on a fiercely hot day that confirmed the Landis's' status as the man to beat, even as it exposed his former team, the Discovery Channel, as a without a legitimate podium threat.
For now, let's just reflect on how far Landis had to come to get to the steps behind the giant inflatable clam shell where a French guy proclaims your name, the crowd applauds, and you step out onto the stage and accept a bouquet and a stuffed lion and allow a pair lovely young women to slide the maillot jaune over your shoulders.
"I'll be thinking about that moment for a long time," a grinning Landis told me after stepping out of the shadow of the clamshell. I asked him how it felt to sign autographs for podium girls and shake hands with Bernard Hinault and the other French grandees. "I don't' understand a lot of French, so I was just nodding, I just talking some smack, making s--- up as I went along."
He may have to be similarly resourceful to keep his new shirt: this Phonak team, while game, is far from great. Landis navigated his way up the final mountain without teammates, and perhaps will need to get used to finding himself alone in the high mountains. The Tour now leaves the monsters of Pyrenees behind, but heads into the Alps for three days early next week.
The endgame of the 11th stage played out like this: Rabobank's Denis Menchov made an acceleration matched only by Landis and fellow American Levi Leipheimer, the Gerolsteiner leader who appeared to be resurrected after a poor first half of this Tour. While Menchov won the stage, and Landis rode into yellow, Leipheimer came up empty-handed. "Obviously, it took a lot of effort to come back, and keep believing in myself," said Levi, a resident of Santa Rosa, Calif., who lost the Tour last Saturday when he somnambulated his way to 96th place in a long time trial. While his effort today showed that he remains one of world's elite riders, he wasn't smiling after coming second to Menchov in the sprint finish. "I wish I could've won," he said mournfully, before remounting his bike and coasting to the refuge of a team car.
Don't get too blue, Levi. Things could be worse. Ask Gentleman George Hincapie, who began the day with a still-respectable shot at the podium, and ended it with a lonely slog up the Pla de Beret, which he reached 21 minutes and 23 seconds after Menchov, Leipheimer and Landis. Hincapie now sits in 40th place and will spend the rest of the race hunting stage wins and wondering if this means the end of his audition as Discovery team leader.
Let us slow the vehicle now and have a good rubbernecking session at the wreckage of Discovery's day. The highest finisher for the team that has owned this race for the last seven years was Jose Azevedo, who came in 15th, four minutes and 10 seconds behind the leaders. "I started out the last climb with the first group," he said, just beyond the finish line, but lost contact with 12 kilometers to go. Asked if he was surprised to have no teammates around him on the last climb, he replied, "I don't drop because I am alone. I drop because I don't have legs."