Tour de France: Pereiro breakaway exposes Landis

One of easiest stages reveals the weakness of American's team and puts Spaniard in yellow

Yesterday's victory for the CSC rider Jens Voigt was almost completely overshadowed by the failure of the American Floyd Landis to retain the overall lead in the most unlikely circumstances.

The 230-kilometre trek through the foothills of the Cevennes was in theory one of the easiest of the second week, even if temperatures soared into the 40s in mid-afternoon and the road tarmac was bubbling under the peloton's wheels as they passed.

So when a five-man break containing theoretical non-favourites such as Voigt and the rider he outsprinted in Montélimar, Oscar Pereiro, went clear in the first hour, Landis's yellow jersey was expected to remain secure.

However, this year's race has been heavy on surprises, and as the clock ticked away after Voigt and Pereiro crossed the line, a sub-plot of the stage - that of Pereiro making inroads on the overall classification - suddenly mushroomed into the main event of the day.

Starting the day in 46th position, nearly 29 minutes behind Landis, Pereiro's chances of moving into yellow would usually be rated as minimal - which is precisely why he was allowed into the move in the first place.

However, Landis's squad, Phonak, then proved incapable of taking control of the race behind, or of finding allies willing to help them do so.

Instead, the bunch trundled in nearly half an hour down on the two stage leaders, and Pereiro found himself, contrary to all possible expectations, in yellow, with nearly 90 seconds advantage on Landis overall.

"It's a huge surprise, but a very welcome one for us," Pereiro, who rides for a Hispano-French team, Caisse D'Epargne-Iles Baleares commented afterwards.

"We lost our team leader Alejandro Valverde in the Ardennes because of a crash, so taking the jersey is definitely something to celebrate. Little by little, I started doing the maths during the stage, seeing if I could get the yellow jersey. Lord knows we had enough time to kill after attacking so early on. But really I never expected that I could actually do it." Landis remains the overall favourite for yellow in Paris, given that Pereiro suffered badly in the Pyrenees and the Alps are yet to come. Logic would dictate that he should crack, leaving the way open for the American once more.

But the Spaniard's success proves beyond all doubt that if the American himself is in top condition, his team are way too weak collectively to control the race - even on a stage with virtually no climbs.

The consequence is simple: the American's rivals will be rubbing their hands in anticipation of the inroads they can make on Landis's overall advantage in the three tough mountain stages to come. For the fans this development is more than welcome, following years of domination by Lance Armstrong.

In fact, all the 2006 Tour has in common with the Texan's seven-year hegemony is that an American is the major favourite - and like Armstrong, one spurred on by experience of a major health problem.

In Armstrong's case, suffering a life-threatening form of cancer prior to winning the Tour was what motivated him to greater success.

But in the 30-year-old Pennsylvanian's case, it is the knowledge that the slow but steady development of arthritis in his right hip, which will need replacement this autumn, could mean this is his last chance to win the Tour. But if no one can question Landis's motivation, the biggest problem for him is his team.

The American was completely isolated at the crunch moments in the Pyrenees, and with three Alpine stages to come, this hardly bodes well.

Whoever does win the Tour will also have to retain enough strength to fend off their rivals in a final long time-trial on Saturday. To judge from Landis's experience yesterday, no leader will be able to breathe easy beforehand. After so many Tours with the same winner, it is a welcome, and intriguing development in the race's history.

Alasdair Fotheringham writes for Cycling Weekly

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