Tour de France: Gontchar the target for preying Landis

Favourites outpaced by Ukrainian veteran

The Tour's first major challenge, a 52-kilometre time trial, saw the American Floyd Landis make solid inroads on the overall classification and - on paper and prior to all the mountains - become the best-placed favourite for the final victory in Paris.

While the veteran Sergei Gontchar took both a surprising win on stage seven and the yellow jersey yesterday, the 36-year-old Ukrainian is widely expected to hold the lead only as far as the foot of the Pyrenees next Wednesday.

Landis, who placed an impressive second, 1min 1sec behind Gontchar, could well have ended his stage very differently after the Phonak rider was forced to change his bike mid-race following a spectacular near-crash.

Just as in the prologue, where a slit tyre meant a late start to the stage, the Pennsylvanian was teetering towards disaster at one point. He all but took off when he rode over a speed bump at full steam, his front wheel rearing in the air and his entire frame slammed against a mini-roundabout.

His handlebars broke under the impact, and it was nothing short of miraculous that Landis did not crash badly as well. Instead, the former lieutenant for Lance Armstrong has now become the best-placed of the overall contenders, second, 1min behind Gontchar.

Landis was one of the few Americans - most people's pre-stage favourites - to come away from the time trial feeling satisfied. The leader of Armstrong's Discovery team, George Hincapie, slid slowly out of the frame to take 24th, while the Californian Levi Leipheimer cracked completely to finish over six minutes down.

Bobby Julich, one of the few previous Tour podium finishers still in the race, fared even worse. The CSC rider's front wheel slipped on a greasy road surface and he left the race with a broken wrist.

The real surprise of the day, though, was Gontchar, a former world time-trial champion but who, at 36, was thought too long in the tooth to count as a contender. There was no disputing the figures though: Gontchar smashed all the intermediate best times to record the fourth fastest average speed ever at 50.554kmh for a long time trial in the Tour.

"This area must bring me luck, I won the world time-trial championships in 2000 just down the road from here," Gontchar said. "For now I don't know what will happen afterwards, I just want to enjoy the feeling of taking my first ever stage in the Tour.

"Yes I am 36, but I feel a lot younger." Age notwithstanding, Gontchar could prove difficult for Landis to shake off in the mountains. Second in the 2004 Giro d'Italia and briefly leader in the same race earlier this season, the Ukrainian has a string of top-10 overall places in Italy's top event to his name, and his team have four riders in the first 10 in the Tour.

For T-Mobile, Gontchar's yellow jersey is a near-miracle: their leader Jan Ullrich was excluded from the Tour in the build-up following implication in a doping scandal, and the team's morale was understandably battered as a consequence.

While one of Britain's time-trial specialists on the race, David Millar, suffered badly to finish a disappointing 37th, his compatriot Bradley Wiggins celebrated his Tour debut with 28th on the stage.

"I nearly cracked in the last two kilometres, but I'm very pleased," Wiggins, who beat stars of the calibre of Hincapie and Leipheimer, said. "I was supposed to go all out in the first part and then ease off, but in fact I was going so well I ended up catching two other riders."

Alasdair Fotheringham writes for 'Cycling Weekly'

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