Friday, July 21, 2006

The Return of Floyd

What can you say about yesterday's stage?  Absolutely phenomenal.  Floyd Landis, the man left for dead just 24 hours before, broke away from the peloton with 127km to go and stormed his way to his first ever stage victory in the Tour.  More importantly, though, was the 5:40 he put into Carlos Sastre and 7:08 he put into maillot jaune wearer Oscar Pereiro and everyone else.  Landis now sits in 3rd place on the general classification, a mere 30 seconds behind Perreiro.  With the final 57km time trial coming on Saturday, Landis, the biggest favorite for that time trial, is suddenly poised to claim final glory in Paris.
The stage started out like almost any other stage of the Tour, when 11 riders in a breakaway went up the road.  At the base of the Col des Saisies, however, Landis put his men out on the front to whip up the pace.  After whittling the gap to the breakaway from 11 to 7 minutes in just 4km, Landis decided to attack.  Initially, a group containing Sastre, Andreas Kloden, Michael Rogers, and Cadel Evans tried to stay with Landis, but Floyd was having none of it.  Accelerating again, he was simply too strong for anyone to follow, with the rest of the riders retreating to the safety of the peloton.  By the top of the climb, Landis had put 3 minutes into the peloton and surged on in pursuit of the breakaway.  Landis eventually caught and then passed the breakaway riders, building up a maximam advantage of 9:06 over the peloton.  Finally, CSC and T-Mobile began to lead a desperate chase to the base of the Joux Plane, pulling Landis back to within 6 minutes.  But that would be all that they would get as Floyd was a man on a mission.  Crossing the top of the Joux Plane 5 minutes ahead of Sastre, Landis would gain an additional 30 seconds on the descent into Morzine, pumping his fist emphatically as he crossed the line.
Landis will not be denied in this Tour; his ride was up there as one of the greatest single performances in Tour history.  And, given what had happened during the previous stage, it was all the more incredible.  Any other rider would have thrown up the white flag, but Landis showed a determination and tenaciousness that only true champions possess.  As long as he does not suffer any mechanical problems or injuries, he should go on to complete the fairytale comeback in Saturday's time trial and take the golden fleece onto the Champs d'Elysees.  Then again, who knows?  With 3 men within 30 seconds of the lead, anything is possible.  This Tour has changed every single day, with the improbable becoming the possible.  Nothing is assumed at this point.
What a day, what a race, what a sport.  This Tour, at risk of being overshadowed by Operation Puerto, has developed into something out of a storybook.  One of the best Tours ever.  What will happen next?

- Chris, cyclingfans.com columnist