Landis story was big, but not the Tour's only highlight
Posted: Monday July 24, 2006 1:34PM; Updated: Monday July 24, 2006 1:34PM
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PARIS -- There's no crying in baseball, and there's no crying on the podium at the Tour de France if you're Floyd Landis, the Jack Handy-quoting stoic from the Keystone State. In addition to the run-of-the-mill misery doled out by this three-week suffer-fest -- the summiting of Pyrenees and Alps and whatnot -- the Phonak captain overcame an epic bonk in Stage 16 and the pain caused by a degenerative right hip he will have replaced within two months. He overcame that discomfort the same way he dealt with the pain of, say, crashing his mountain bike on one of his now-legendary no-headlamp night rides when he was a teenager in Lancaster County, Pa. ("One night he just ran into a guy on the side of the road, and they both went down," Floyd's buddy Eric Gebhard told me earlier this year. "I was riding behind him. One moment he was there, the next he was gone.")
This is a guy whose emotions are not for public viewing, which is why his Stage 16 crack came as such a shock. One moment Landis was nestled in with the race leaders; the next he was chocolate mess, and the '06 Tour de France was up for grabs again.
Until Stage 17, which we'll discuss below. My point for now is: No wonder he didn't cry on the podium. Remember, this is a man fond of quoting the Handy maxim "It takes a big man to cry. It takes a bigger man to laugh at that man."
I think it was last year that a colleague in need of a column made the (specious) point that while he understood that Armstrong was one of the greatest athletes of his generation, he lamented the absence of signature moments in the Texan's career. I resisted the urge to phone the fellow and tick off a dozen, just for starters. But, for crissakes, has a column ever been more wrong, on its face? Armstrong's career comprises, it seems, nothing but gooseflesh moments. You've got the Catch, his figurative gelding of Jan Ullrich, whom he overtook, and psychologically destroyed, in last year's prologue. There are the Detonations -- of the peloton on the slopes of Sestriere in 1999, and on the switchbacks of Hautacam a year later. There was the Bluff from 2001 (after feigning distress during the Alpe d'Huez stage, a suddenly chipper Armstrong rocketed away from everyone on the final climb), and the Detour (across a cornfield to avoid a fallen rider in '03.)
That said, Armstrong never had a more thrilling day, never took a more dramatic stage win, than the one Landis did on July 19, from a little town at the base of La Toussuire, the mountain that had broken him the day before, to Morzine, where he was still in such an intense, angry place upon winning the stage that he practically flung his bike to the ground while flashing an expression that said, "How do you like me now?"
The headlines in the next day's papers put it nicely: "Landis est Grand!" "L'incroyable Revanche!" "Monumental Landis!" and "C'est Phenomenal!"
That brings me to the biggest no-brainer in this Tour wrap-up column:
Most Epic Performance: Not just in this race, but in many, many Tours, and possibly ever in this event. Landis threw -- and completed -- cycling's version of a Hail Mary pass in the final mountain stage. Down eight minutes to the new leader after his Stage 16 meltdown cost him the yellow jersey, Landis hatched a plan that even he later described as "absurd." He would attack 50 kilometers into the following day's 200km stage, at the base of the first of four mountains. When the Phonak captain was launched by his team up the mountain, he knew there was a breakaway group six minutes up the road. Bridging up to them effortlessly, he then proceeded to explode that little group. "It was incredible," recalls Stuart O'Grady. "I've done 10 Tours and I've never seen anything like it."
CSC and T-Mobile waited far too long to start chasing Landis, who was nine-plus minutes in front of the peloton at one point. They got some of that time back, but not enough to prevent Landis from winning the Tour by 59 seconds.