Out for the count 24 hours before, Floyd Landis yesterday staged an epic 120-kilometre comeback through the Alps that - against all expectation - has the American poised once more for victory
Slated for his timid return to the race lead at Alpe D'Huez, written off after he lost 10 minutes to the stage winners on Wednesday, on the Tour's final Alpine stage the Phonak rider bounced back as hard as he had fallen - or harder. The 30-year-old took off on the first major climb of the day, the Col de Saisies from the main peloton and and quickly passed through an earlier break. "I figured attacking so early would confuse them [his rivals]," Landis said.
Opening up a lead of eight minutes on the yellow jersey, Oscar Pereiro, Landis shed the only rider able to stay with him, the German Patrick Sinkewitz, at the foot of the last major climb of the race, the Joux-Plane.
Landis maintained his advantage over Carlos Sastre at the summit and, after a breakneck descent to Morzine, opened up the gap to nearly six minutes by the finish. "I didn't want to throw away three weeks' hard work by my team by losing it all on a single climb [on Wednesday]," Landis said. "Today it was a long shot, but I never expected this to work out so successfully."
Landis' dramatic return to form puts the American well in the frame for overall victory in Paris: on general classification he now trails Sastre by just 18 seconds and is a mere 30 seconds behind Pereiro.
With a 57-kilometre time trial still to come, Landis, a specialist against the clock, should have no problems taking America's eighth consecutive win in the Tour. "We'll wait and see," he said. "I may still pay for this effort later. But I'm fairly confident about my possibilities in a time trial."
"I couldn't do much about Floyd today," said the leader Pereiro, who rode solidly without cracking, but, none the less, lost 7min 8sec to the American.
"Floyd did an amazing ride, full stop, and when we needed collaboration behind to try and pull him back, we didn't get it."
Regardless of the final outcome, the comparisons between Landis and the all-time great, Eddy Merckx, are already flooding in. "Earlier in the race, I would have liked to have won it like him, but couldn't." Landis said. "After [Wednesday's] disaster I didn't have the choice but to try to."
Landis' team manager, Jean Lelangue, said later that it was in fact Merckx, working as an adviser for Phonak, who told Landis to try for such a reckless break - the only real precedent in recent Tour history being Merckx's ferocious long- distance counter-attack after his legendary defeat at Orcieres-Merlette in 1973.
"Floyd was like an injured lion today who needed to restore his wounded pride by striking out at whatever cost," the team co-director Juan Fernandez added. "And it worked."
Alasdair Fotheringham writes for 'Cycling Weekly'Reuse content