Landis looks like a lock, but don't rule anything out
Posted: Saturday July 22, 2006 4:27PM; Updated: Sunday July 23, 2006 9:00AM
Floyd Landis regained the yellow jersey -- and got a hand from five-time Tour de France winner Eddie Merckx.
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MONTCEAU-LES-MINES, France -- Welcome to French coal country, where a man from Pennsylvania wrapped up the 2006 Tour de France on Saturday.
Actually, considering how this race has gone to date, let's just say Floyd Landisappeared to clinch this most prestigious of grand tours. Landis, no dummy, wouldn't quite go there after taking the race lead Saturday. On the cusp of becoming just the third American to win this race, Landis had no desire to provoke the cycling deities, who have had a very active Tour.
That said, the guy sure looks like a lock. By streaking through Saturday's 35-mile time trial 91 seconds faster than race leader Oscar Pereiro, Landis plucked the yellow jersey from the back of the Spaniard, who'd gone into the stage with a highly tenuous, 30-second lead on him.
Thus does the Phonak captain take a 59-second lead into Sunday's ceremonial, 96-mile promenade from Sceaux-Antony, in the suburbs of Paris, to the Champs-Elysees. In keeping with the rigid custom of this 103-year-old race, the yellow jersey is not to be contested on the Tour's final day. But this edition of the event has featured so many whoopee cushions, trap doors and exploding cigars -- pre-race favorites banished on the eve of the Tour; a bad crash claiming another; eight different men in the yellow jersey -- that it seems well within the realm of possibility that something strange may go down Sunday.
"It's not over yet," said Landis after the time trial. "I'm not exactly sure what's going to happen next, but maybe we can handle [Sunday]."
Translation: it will be all but impossible to screw this up. But, considering what's already happened in this Tour, we're not ruling anything out.
On paper, objectively, this should have been a day with a high pucker factor for Landis. He was not defending the lead -- he had to go out and snatch it. He stood third overall, needing to make up a half-minute on Pereiro and 12 seconds on Carlos Sastre of CSC. While that is not a tall order for Landis -- even Pereiro had admitted a day earlier that, even on a good day, he would expect to lose two minutes to the Phonak leader in a time trial of this length -- it still doesn't leave a lot of margin for error. And the common denominator in Landis' first two time trials at this Tour were errors. In the prologue, he rolled down the ramp an amateurish eight seconds late, a mechanic having noticed a tiny slit in his rear tire at the last minute. Early in the first long time trial a week later, he snapped the handlebar extensions on his bike -- excuse me, the Phonaks prefer that we refer to it as his "time trial machine" -- costing him a half minute, easily. He hadn't inspired confidence.
And yet, as he took a leisurely recon ride over the course Saturday morning -- isn't it wild that, to better prepare themselves for a 35-mile race, these guys ... ride 35 miles? -- Landis exuded nothing but calm, casual confidence.
"I was confident going into the time trial, but I wasn't nearly as confident as Floyd was," recalled Landis's coach, Robbie Ventura, who reported that the 30-year-old spun around the parcours belting out Kid Rock numbers. "You don't want to mess around with Floyd when he's singing Kid Rock."
"We talked a little bit about cadence, a little bit about the course, messed around with his time trial position a little bit," Ventura recalled, "but that was five percent of the time. The rest of the time was just riding and training like we used to."
"Three men, thirty seconds, a rendezvous in Le Creusot!" That had been the vaguely melodramatic pre-stage pronouncement of former Tour director Jean Marie LeBlanc (who, for a "former" director, was rather annoyingly ubiquitous at this year's Tour). Certainly, the ingredients of great drama were present going into this race contre le montre -- against the clock -- starting in Le Creusot. The problem was, Landis came out of the start house like a lime rocket (memo to IShares: when you take over sponsorship of this team next season, please s___can the current, garish kit). The suspense quickly began seeping out of the proceedings. Landis had the fastest time at the first time check -- at which point he'd already taken 10 seconds out of Pereiro. Sastre, normally a better time trial guy than his fellow Spaniard, apparently left his legs in the Alps. He woke up Saturday morning leading Landis by just 12 seconds; by the first time check, he'd already lost 1:06 to him. (Sastre finished 3˝ minutes slower than Landis and -- sadly for the CSC rider who rode with such panache for the Tour's unluckiest team -- dropped off the podium.)