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Rocket man

Landis' relentless attack puts him back in the race

Posted: Thursday July 20, 2006 6:50PM; Updated: Thursday July 20, 2006 6:50PM
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Floyd Landis attacked early and often, a strategy so outrageous it actually paid off.
Floyd Landis attacked early and often, a strategy so outrageous it actually paid off.

Morzine, France -- There were a couple names for Phonak's strategy going into today's 17th stage of the Tour. Some called it "the Hail Mary." Floyd Landis used saltier language in describing his plan for clawing his way back into the race he'd all but lost the previous day. As he told his trainer, Allen Lim, the morning after tumbling from first to eleventh place, "I'm going to go apes--- on them."

The French are very proprietary about this race and the men who contest it. It is not enough to be leading --- you must succeed with a certain style, with panache. They had not seen this quality in Floyd Landis, the Phonak captain who in carving out a two-minute margin over his main rivals in the first fortnight of the Tour raced with all the bravado of a CPA. The French disapproved, and could not disguise their pleasure when the Phonak leader came to grief yesterday, his legs turning to Jell-O on the slopes of an Alp called La Toussuire. In a catastrophic performance, he finished 10 minutes behind the stage winner, leaving eight minutes eight seconds behind race leader Oscar Pereiro.

What a difference a day makes. Midway through this, the Tour's final mountain stage, over five Alpine passes, ending with a screaming descent into this charming resort town, five-time Tour winner Bernard Hinault announced that he was "rejoicing" in the performance of Landis. The Phonak leader, he said, "is showing he is a soldier ... I am with him today because I like his temperament."

One man's courageous temperament is another man's derangement. As one British writer observed to me before Hiinault's pronouncement: "That Floyd -- he's bonkers, isn't he?"

So it seemed. Landis attacked on the first climb --- a tactic so outlandish; a gamble so implausible that it was, in retrospect, brilliant. With a breakaway group full of no-consequence riders six minutes up the road, the hardheaded Pennsylvanian put his team at the front of the main pack, where they began to execute the day's plan: putting a hurt on a peloton compromised and leg-weary after a week of Pyrenees and Alps. Halfway up the climb, Landis rocketed from the bunch, setting such a punishing tempo that no one gave chase. Surely he would spend himself in the Alps ahead. Surely he would be reeled in eventually --- the guy had looked like death warmed over trying to finish the previous stage.

The headline in that morning's Dauphine, a local paper, had trumpeted, LANDIS OUT, "And that made me mad," he would later allow. Flashing a pissed off expression and pushing a bigger gear than anyone else in the field, Landis walked down a group of eleven breakaway riders who'd earlier escaped. Upon overtaking them, he did not spend a few moments in someone else's slipstream, taking a blow, as might have been expected. He rode to the front as if it were his birthright, took an absurdly long pull, which shed several lesser riders, then commenced negotiations. Was anyone interested in forming an alliance?

No takers. "Nobody wanted to work with me," he later recalled. Tant pis! As the French say. Too bad. Landis set about riding the entire group off his wheel. Patrik Sinkewitz of T-Mobile, advocating for the interests of team leader Andreas Kloden, hung around the longest, riding in Landis's slipstream for 70km, one of the most egregious examples of wheel-sucking parasitism in the annals of this sport.

In the end, it didn't matter. Landis dropped Sinkewitz early in the ascent of the Col de Joux-Plane, the beyond-category colossus that stood as the final serious mountain in this Tour, and, as such, offered the peloton its best chance to reel in Landis. By this time, he had opened up such a massive gap on the peloton --- nine minutes and four seconds at one point --- that he was the race leader on the road, the virtuel maillot jaune as the French say.

After rocketing through the 12-kilometer descent of the Joux-Plane, Landis capped off his all but incomprehensible 77-mile attack by crossing the line in Morzine 5:42 ahead of Carlos Sastre of CSC. With 30 seconds of time bonuses, Landis pulled to within 18 seconds of Sastre in the Classement General. He now trails race leader Oscar Pereiro by 30 seconds. Hemorrhaging more than seven minutes was T-Mobile's Kloden, who dropped to fourth place, 2 1/2 minutes behind Landis, who went from race favorite to bonk-prone goat to race favorite in the space of 25 hours.

Standing at the finish line, awestruck by what he had just witnessed, Tour director Christian Prudhomme gushed, "He's just proved he has incredible character. The performance he had today is something I haven't seen in 20 years." Such a brazen attack, so far from the finish, with so much at stake, "reminds me of the riders of my childhood: of Mercxk, of Ocana, of Hinault."

Even though he trails Pereiro and Sastre, Landis did a number on them, psychologically. "He wacked them in the face," said Paul Sherwen, the OLN analyst who called one of the most extraordinary stages of his career. "He went from a defeated, broken man to the probable winner of the Tour in about six hours."

Two days ago I coronated Landis in this space. Yesterday I wrote his obituary. So it was with a slightly whipsawed feeling that I'd taken a stroll down the Avenue Henri Falcoz in Saint-Jeanne-de-Maurienne before today's stage, looking for Landis. I wanted to show him I was just a fair-weather scribe; wanted to tell him that, even though he'd lost the Tour the previous day, that I respected how he never gave up.

Last in a long line of buses on the Avenue, behind Caisse d'Epargne and CSC and T-Mobile, whose team leaders had leapfrogged Landis the previous afternoon, was parked the Phonak coach. There was a forlorn air about it. While clutches of reporters and TV cameramen buzzed around the others, the pea-green and yellow coach was undisturbed. Of course there was no media around. Landis was already old news.

I stood in front of the bus for a few moments when a wiry figure appeared in the windshield. It was nice to see Landis smiling, I remember thinking --- good to see that he'd already come to terms with it. I offered what amounted to condolences. He accepted them graciously. I told him how much I was looking forward to Saturday's time trial, when he would have the opportunity to salvage something from a Tour gone awry.

His smile came back. "You know," he said, "we may be able to get some of that time back today."

He meant every syllable of that. Somehow, word got out in the peloton that the Phonaks were going to try something preposterous. By doing so, they would be inflicting suffering on the rest of a Tour-weary bunch. Which explains why a number of riders coasted up to Landis before the first mountain, imploring him not to attempt something so foolhardy. As Landis would later recall, "I just told 'em, Go drink some Coke, 'cause we're leaving on the first climb if you want to come along.'"

They did, Landis rode himself back onto the podium, and into history. Men likeHinault and Sherwen and Prudhomme struggled to recall such an audacious, courageous performance when so much was at stake. When Landis came across the line, punching the air, everyone knew they'd seen something extraordinary. The most telling response may have come from Sastre himself. When the classy Spaniard finally finished, Landis extended his hand. But Sastre was having none of that, instead wrapping his rival in a congratulatory embrace.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have ourselves a bike race. Of the top GC contenders, Landis has proven himself the best time trialist. Thus will this rollicking, delightful, unpredictable race come down to the time trial, in two days. Three riders -- Pereiro, Sastre and Landis -- are within 30 seconds of one another.

Landis's teammate, Robbie Hunter, a rather dour South African not given to hyperbole, crossed the line some 55 minutes behind his leader, who was emerging the dopage trailer when Hunter finished. After the two shared a bear hug, Hunter spoke for many in his sport when he said, to no one in particular, "That was the most impressive thing I've ever seen."