Monday, July 24, 2006

Floyd Wins Le Tour

American Floyd Landis completed his victory in the Tour de France yesterday in the race's 20th and final stage into Paris.  Finishing in the main pack, he secured his final winning margin of 57 seconds over Oscar Pereiro.  The day was a ceremonial affair, with Floyd and his Phonak teammates sipping champagne and celebrating at the beginning of the stage, then leading the peloton onto to the Avenue des Champs-Elysées in what has become a traditional honor for the team of the winner.  Phonak then slid back a couple of positions in the group to allow the other teams to battle out the stage.  As the peloton crossed the line, Landis and co. were seen hugging and congratulating each other on an amazing victory.
The only available prize on the day was the prestigious stage victory itself, which was won in a sprint by Thor Hushovd of Norway.  Outsprinting favorite Robbie McEwen, who started his sprint too early, Hushovd collected his second stage victory of this year's Tour.  His other was the opening stage prologue that saw him briefly in the maillot jaune.  It was disappointing for McEwen, whose team did a lot of work in disrupting and pulling back a dangerous 14 man breakaway in the final kilometers.  He can console himself though with his third green jersey victory in the sprinters competition, finishing a massive 89 points ahead of 6 time green jersey winner Erik Zabel.
Landis's victory has now cemented him as a top rider in cycling.  Riding as a lieutenant for Lance Armstrong until last year's jump to the Phonak team, Landis had never before been the sole leader of a team.  2006, though, has seen a completely different Floyd Landis.  Wins in the Tour of California and the Tour de Georgia, America's two most prestigious stage races, as well as the overall victory in Paris-Nice (the traditional season opening race in Europe) showed that Landis had reached another level as a rider.  Whereas last year he entered the Tour as part of a "three-pronged attack" strategy (along with Santiago Botero and, ironically, Oscar Pereiro), this year he has shown himself worthy of being the undisputed leader of the team. 
His victory means it's the 8th victory for the United States at the Tour de France in the last 8 years.  This was supposed to be a recovery period for American cycling after Lance left; now it has in fact become a continuation of American domination, though with an entirely different set of storylines.  Landis looked confident and able throughout the Tour of achieving the top spot on the podium.  However, his now well documented collapse and then miraculous resurrection added a drama and uncertainty not seen during the Lance years.  Lance, for all his troubles in 2003, was always the favorite in the race and never looked beaten during his 7 year reign.  His miraculous comeback from cancer to become the greatest ever Tour champion is the greatest comeback of all time. 
However, on a purely sporting level, Landis's comeback is even more incredible.  He lost 10 minutes on the crucial stage of the Tour to La Toussuire, which surely meant the end of his chances for the overall victory.  Read any cycling report or ask any cycling expert, and they would have all told you he had no chance of victory.  To his credit, though, Floyd said that night, "this Tour is not over, I will keep on fighting."  When no one else believed in him, he went out the next day on the devastating attack over the Joux Plane and into Morzine, proving every single doubter wrong.  Some people have said that CSC and T-Mobile should have chased Floyd sooner in the stage and not let him get so much time.  But they miss the point: CSC and T-Mobile did in fact try, they simply just could not catch Landis, he just rode them all off his wheel.  He was simply too good for anyone.  When everyone else said his chances were 0, Floyd didn't care and persisted anyway the way only true champions do.  His victory is completely deserved, and his courage in victory will go down as one of the greatest cycling exploits ever.
Landis announced during this Tour that he will need to have hip replacement surgery in the offseason (wait a minute, you're saying he did all of these incredible things, and all this time he has had a bum hip?!).  His return to the top of the sport is a major question mark next year.  No one has ever comeback from hip replacement (hmm, this sounds familiar.  Top American cyclist, facing some obstacle that threatens his career that no one has ever overcome before, where have I heard this story before?).  The task Landis faces to return next year is long and arduous.  Then again, after watching this year's Tour de France, are you really willing to bet against anything he does anymore?  I think not.
Bravo Floyd!

- Chris, cyclingfans.com columnist