When Phonak’s Floyd Landis gave Oscar Pereiro a 30-minute “gift” at the Tour de France one week ago to put the Spanish rider in yellow, he couldn’t have imagined the difficult task he’d have to stave off his former teammate. That task got tougher after his grand meltdown atop La Toussuire on stage 16, when Landis gave up eight minutes and Pereiro regained the yellow jersey he’d lost to Landis at L’Alpe d’Huez. And when the American fought back with an epic solo breakaway into Morzine the following day, he still had a half-minute deficit on Pereiro going into Saturday’s 57km time trial.
On a steaming hot afternoon in Montceau-les-Mines, Landis did enough to reclaim the maillot jaune from the Caisse d’Épargne-Illes Balears rider, pad his overall lead with an extra 59 seconds and ensure that for the eighth year in a row, an American will win the Tour de France.
Pereiro, who has twice finished 10th at the past two Tours, primarily as an opportunist, didn’t give up without a fight. He wasn’t expected to maintain his 30-second lead over Landis, and with a 2:29 advantage over T-Mobile’s Andréas Klöden, second place was in doubt as well. But Pereiro rode the time trial of his life, and after racing above his usual level in an attempt to keep the overall lead, Pereiro settled into a pace that yielded only two minutes to the German, and he’ll stand on the second rung of the Champs-Élysées podium Sunday.
Klöden’s teammate Sergei Gontchar again destroyed everyone in the individual time trial, just at he did at Rennes two weeks ago, this time beating Klöden by 41 seconds, with Landis third at 1:11.
“I thought I was the favorite, but when the yellow jersey is on the line, people get inspired,” Landis said. “Pereiro did a fantastic time trial. I was a little concerned about the four-hour time trial I did a few days ago, but it worked out okay. I was beaten by a considerable amount by Gontchar again, and that was impressive, but I did what I needed to do.”
Young riders, stage contenders
The 57 complicated kilometers that linked the twin industrial cities of Le Creusot and Montceau-les-Mines dished up an undulating, technical course that called for bike-handling skills and power as much as time-trialing strength. The first kilometer of the reverse-S-shaped course traveled through 10 sharp turns, and though there were a few long straightaways in between, the course was a mix of narrow back roads and city streets that twisted and climbed around the district’s former coal mines and steel mills.
There were three time checks on the course, at 16.5km, 30km and 51.5km, but the time differences would be most important in the final 22km, as fatigue set in while riders battled the route’s two most significant pitches. Course conditions were hot, in the mid-90s, but wind did not play a significant factor. In fact, most riders would have preferred some wind — the heat and humidity were so intense that the highway workers sprayed water on the road to cool the melting tar.
Fifty-first out of the start house, ageless stalwart Viatcheslav Ekimov (Discovery Channel) posted the day’s first significant time, completing the challenging up-and-down course in 1:11:26. On a course that ill-suited his skills, Ekimov’s former U.S. Postal Service teammate David Zabriskie (CSC) came through six seconds faster, but both were bested by German Sebastian Lang (Gerolsteiner), who crossed the line 17 seconds up on the American.
Before the GC contenders took to the start house, all eyes were on Gontchar, winner of the 52km time trial on stage 7. The Ukrainian, who has four Giro d’Italia time trials in his résumé, posted the fastest time at the first time check a full 41 seconds faster than Lang and lit up the next 13.5km, extending his lead to 2:08. With 85 riders in, Gontchar led Lang by a full 3:18.
A subplot to the overall GC contest was the best-young-rider battle between Gerolsteiner’s Markus Fothen and Lampre’s 2004 Giro winner Damiano Cunego. Cunego took the lead from Fothen in the Alps, but came into the penultimate stage with only a five-second lead, meaning that he would follow Fothen out of the start house, with three minutes between the two. Fothen, the 2003 world under-23 time trial champion, was favored to take back the coveted white jersey.
But Cunego started out very fast, going through third fastest at the second time check, just 2:07 back of Gontchar. The young Italian held his pace to take 10th on the stage, and more importantly, beat his German counterpart by 31 seconds to secure his spot on the jerseys’ podium in Paris.
On to the main event
Unlike Tours de France from the Armstrong era, Saturday’s final time trial was unique due to the fact that five or six riders were hypothetically in the race. While Landis, who finished second to Gontchar on stage 7, was the big pre-stage favorite, four other riders were within striking distance of the maillot jaune. Race leader Pereiro entered the day 12 seconds ahead of CSC’s Carlos Sastre, 30 seconds ahead of Landis, 2:29 ahead of Klöden and 3:08 ahead of Aussie Cadel Evans (Davitamon-Lotto).
At the first time check Landis showed he’d come to win the overall. Tucked into his trademark praying-mantis aerodynamic position, Landis was the only rider to reach Gontchar’s time at 16.5km, blasting through one second faster than the T-Mobile bomber. Pereiro was only 10 seconds slower, with Klöden matching the surprising Spaniard’s time.
Not faring as well were Sastre and Evans. While Sastre, not known for his time-trialing skill, was in contention for a podium spot, Evans was a long shot. Sadly, both men were out of the race at the first time check, as Sastre came through 1:05 behind Landis and Evans came through at 1:04.
With Landis, Pereiro and Klöden on course at the same time, the fight for the top three podium positions would be determined in the final 40km. But while Landis pushed his 54×11 smooth and solid, Pereiro was turning himself inside out. The 28-year-old Spaniard began to show signs of strain and repeatedly struggled to stay in the saddle. Landis then started to gain time on Pereiro, at the rate of approximately 1.5 seconds per kilometer, and at 4:45 p.m., about 36 minutes after he’d started, Landis became the virtual race leader.
At the second time check, 34km in, Landis had opened his overall lead on Pereiro to 27 seconds. All he needed to do was ride conservatively and the Tour de France was his.
Up the road Evans was hemorrhaging time to Klöden. The German, who is reportedly angry that T-Mobile has yet to offer him a contract for 2007, caught Evans, his three-minute man, inside the final kilometer. Klöden’s efforts propelled him into the top three, and a place on the podium in Paris for the second time in three years. He lies third overall, 1:29 behind Landis. Evans finished 3:41 behind Gonchar, which was enough for the Davitamon rider to hold on to fifth place overall.
“I heard that I was more than a minute before Sastre and that gave me some more power to ride harder,” Klöden said. “Last night I already knew that it was possible to push Sastre from the podium. It’s one of the best time trials of my whole career. I am very happy with this podium, especially after my downfall in the Alps.”
“It was a very good time for me especially as it was a very long and hard ride,” the Ukrainian said. “I’m just happy I could perform so well after such a hard race.”
Landis finished the stage in third, 1:11 behind Gontchar and heads into the largely ceremonial 154km stage 20 from Sceaux to Paris with almost a minute’s cushion over Pereiro. The American had done the unthinkable — after a gargantuan collapse in the Alps, he had clawed his way back into the yellow jersey.
“I don’t pretend to know a lot about what’s going on in life,” Landis said. “But I had good parents that taught me that hard work and patience are important to getting what you want. It took me a long time to learn patience, but that, and persistence, is the lesson I learned in this race.”
At the finish line Pereiro gave Landis a sincere hug. “I started as fast as I could to try to intimidate my rivals,” Pereiro said. “I wanted to let them know I was going to fight. I knew that Klöden was having a good ride, so I went as deep as possible. I suffered like a dog out there and I paid for it a little in the end. I knew that holding off Landis would be nearly impossible, but I didn’t go down without a fight. I had a great TT and I can only be satisfied. I have finished second in the Tour de France. This is something incredible. I can only be happy about that.”
After a few stellar days climbing in the Alps, Sastre left the Tour without a stage win, a podium position or a day spent in the yellow jersey — although he came within 12 seconds of the maillot jaune on the difficult climbing stage 17 into Morzine.
“I was really hoping to stay on the podium,” Sastre said. “I knew it would be hard against Landis and Klöden, but I was surprised at how well Pereiro went. I feel like I deserve more from this Tour for how well I rode, but I have to be satisfied with how I rode. I never had a bad day, and I was able to ride in the key moments. This gives me confidence for the Vuelta [a España in September].”
Making Landis’s feat all the more remarkable is the fact that he rode the Tour with a decaying hip that will be replaced in less than a month.
“I’ll fight as hard as I have in this race to come back next year or the following year,” Landis said. “Whatever it takes.”
Besides Landis (third) and Zabriskie (sixth) the best of the American riders in the time trial were Christian Vande Velde (22nd at 4:52), George Hincapie (29th at 5:30) and Levi Leipheimer (34th at 6:02).
Phonak’s Robbie Hunter will be deprived of riding into Paris with Landis after he was eliminated by the stage time cut. Hunter’s deficit to Gonchar was 18:09, meaning the South African officially finished the stage 1:11 outside the permitted time limit.
1. Sergei Gontchar (Ukr), T-Mobile, 57km in 1:07:45
2. Andréas Klöden (G), T-Mobile, at 0:41
3. Floyd Landis (USA), Phonak, at 1:11
4. Oscar Pereiro Sio (Sp), Caisse d’Epargne-I.B., at 2:40
5. Sebastian Lang (G), Gerolsteiner, at 3:18
6. David Zabriskie (USA), CSC, at 3:35
7. Viatceslav Ekimov (Rus), Discovery Channel, at 03:41
8. Cadel Evans (Aus), Davitamon-Lotto, at 3:41
9. Bert Grabsch (G), Phonak, at 3:43
10. Damiano Cunego (I), Lampre, at 3:44
1. Floyd Landis (USA), Phonak
2. Oscar Pereiro Sio (Sp), Caisse d’Epargne-I.B., at 0:59
3. Andréas Klöden (G), T-Mobile, at 1:29
4. Carlos Sastre (Sp), CSC, at 3:13
5. Cadel Evans (Aus), Davitamon-Lotto, at 5:08
6. Denis Menchov (Rus), Rabobank, at 7:06
7. Cyril Dessel (F), Ag2r Prevoyance, at 8:41
8. Christophe Moreau (F), Ag2r Prevoyance, at 9:37
9. Haimar Zubeldia (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, at 12:05
10. Michael Rogers (Aus), T-Mobile, at 15:07
To see how the stage developed, click here to bring up our live update window. Then stay tuned for a complete report.