Cycling: Landis relishes chance to take Tour to the wire

With three favourites for final victory in the Tour de France on Sunday separated by just 30 seconds overall, the tension will be agonisingly high in this afternoon's time trial.

Yesterday's win in a three-man sprint for Matteo Tosatto was good news for Italy, given it was the country's first victory this year in the Tour.

However, the overall contenders probably spent the stage thinking of little more than the final race against the clock. The entire Tour is talking of little else. For three riders - race leader Oscar Pereiro, his compatriot Carlos Sastre, 12 seconds behind, and the American Floyd Landis at half a minute - to be separated by so little time is rare enough in any major stage race, let alone after 3,450 kilometres of racing in cycling's top event.

The Tour has only been here before in a geographical sense: in 1998 Jan Ullrich won the same time trial stage - a 57-kilometre run through heavy terrain between Le Creusot and Montceau-les-Mines - albeit in the opposite direction.

Yesterday T-Mobil said the 1997 winner had been shown the door after his implication in the Madrid doping scandals. A team spokesman, Luc Eisenga, said: "Ullrich and team-mate Oscar Sevilla were given a period to prove their innocence. They did not provide any fresh information to do this, so their initial suspension has become a formal termination of their contract."

Ullrich responded that he did not accept the decision and that it was "not right that he should be informed by fax and not in person." Gripes over form apart, this represents a dismal exit for the German - who has never finished lower than fourth in the eight Tours - from what was effectively his life-long team.

If the German now almost belongs to Tour history, the major favourite for yellow in Paris this year - and for today's stage - has to be Landis. In the Tour's first long race against the clock in Rennes, the Phonak rider finished 1min 40sec ahead of Pereiro and 1:10 ahead of Sastre, despite nearly wrecking his bike and losing 40 seconds after hitting a roundabout.

Landis also has rock-solid morale after his superb ride through the Alps on Thursday, culminating in a stage win which for many - whether he takes the Tour or not - will make him the moral victor. "I'm not predicting anything." Landis said yesterday. "There've been too many twists and turns in this race to do that."

His caution is understandable: 24 hours before his Alpine epic brought him back into the frame, the American had suffered a major collapse in this Tour of real surprises.

Pereiro, though, is the first to recognise that his margin for error or weakness is more than limited. "We've now got a guest at the final party [Landis] that nobody counted on, but now he'd have to have a complete disaster for me to win the Tour," he said. " I'm in yellow, though and I'm not going to think about whether I finish second, third or 25th in the time trial. We'll see."

The exceptionally high stakes will make it much more difficult for Britain's time trial specialists, David Millar and Bradley Wiggins, to make inroads on the stage classification.

The winner of the Tour's final time trial in 2003, Millar promised he would "give it 100 per cent. But given the context, it's hard to predict what'll happen". Something also true for the entire race itself.

Time trials Traumas and triumphs

* 1968: Before the final stage, a time trial, Jan Janssen lay third, 16 seconds adrift of the leader Herman van Springel - whom he beat by 54sec. He won overall by 38sec.

* 1987: The penultimate-day time trial seemed to have given Stephen Roche victory, till Pedro Delgado broke away on the Sunday seeking an improbable upset. He only just failed.

* 1989: Laurent Fignon looked impregnable, but on the final-day time-trial he cracked as the American Greg LeMond looked on in disbelief, winning by 8sec, the Tour's smallest winning margin.

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