In one of the most audacious and bravest rides seen in the modern era of the Tour de France, Phonak’s American rider Floyd Landis turned the despair of his stage 16 implosion into a stage-winning breakaway that put him back into the role of favorite to win this extraordinary race.
Landis stunned Tour de France observers when he lost more than 10 minutes on the slopes to La Toussuire on Wednesday; but they were floored by his performance in Thursday’s 200.5km stage from St. Jean de Maurienne to Morzine, the last day in the Alps.
Heading into the Tour’s three-day finale, Spaniard Oscar Pereiro (Caisse d’Épargne-Illes Balears) still leads overall. But thanks to a brazen solo attack 125km from the finish, Landis not only won the stage, he also hauled himself back from 11th place overall at 8:08 to third, only 30 seconds behind Pereiro.
It was an attack that stemmed from a quiet beer Landis shared with team manager John Lelangue on Wednesday night, when the pair resolved that the Tour was “not over.” Landis, still glowing with a winner’s look, even joked about that beer during his post-race press conference
Asked about his constant calls for extra water during Thursday’s stage, run in searing conditions, he said, “It was very hot. Maybe that was the explanation or maybe it was the beer I had last night.”
His attack was the best possible response to those critics in the French media — particularly the Paris newspaper, Aujourd’hui, which branded his ride to claim the yellow jersey at L’Alpe d’Huez as one that was achieved without panache.
Further proof that Landis had gotten his message across came with his being awarded the “Prix de la Combativité” for the most aggressive rider on Thursday’s stage by a panel that included French legend and five-time Tour champion Bernard Hinault. Landis’s ride was equal to anything that Hinault achieved in his extraordinary career.
Considering how the Tour is now placed, as it nears its finish on the Champs Élysées in Paris on Sunday, Landis did more than prove the Tour is “not over.” The definitive battle for the 2006 title vacated by American champion Lance Armstrong has only just begun.
With Spaniard Carlos Sastre (CSC) now placed second overall at 10 seconds, the Tour has three riders inside half a minute of each other — a scenario that assures the Tour will have an unbelievable climax in Saturday’s 57km stage 19 time trial.
“It would not be fair if I told you what happens next,” joked Landis, his answer referring to the incredible litany of upsets that have highlighted this so remarkable of Tours. “But it’s obvious I would like to win this race.”
Pereiro, Sastre and Landis today set themselves apart from what has been a tightly knit top-seven in overall classification.
Now in fourth place overall is Germany’s Andréas Klöden (T-Mobile) at 2:29 to Pereiro, followed by Australian Cadel Evans (Davitamon-Lotto) at 3:08. In sixth overall is the Russian Denis Menchov (Rabobank), at 4:14, while French revelation Cyril Dessel (Ag2r) is seventh at 4:24.
Landis didn’t waste a pedal stroke in his unexpected escapade through this last, tough day in the Alps that saw him set off in pursuit of an initial 11-man break after only 75km.
Ahead of him lay five mountain climbs: the Col des Saisies, Col des Aravis, Col de la Colombière, Côte de Châtillon-sur-Cluses and the brutal Col de Joux-Plane.
But Landis could not be stopped. He first reeled in the lead group that would splinter with every climb; and finally found himself in front and leading the race all the way to the finish at Morzine.
After 5:23:36 in the saddle and under humid summer conditions, Landis crossed the finish line at Morzine 5:42 ahead of second-placed Sastre and 5:58 in front of Frenchman Christophe Moreau (Ag2r) whose third place pleased the local fans.
How it all began
It was after just 12km that the first major break formed, a 14-strong group made up of Pavel Padrnos (Discovery Channel), Stuart O’Grady (CSC), Patrik Sinkewitz (T-Mobile), Joost Posthuma and Pieter Weening (Rabobank), Daniele Righi (Lampre-Fondital), Juan Manuel Garate and Bram Tankink (Quick Step-Innergetic), Patrice Halgand and Christophe Le Mevel (Crédit Agricole), Stéphane Augé (Cofidis), David De la Fuente (Saunier Duval-Prodir), Philippe Gilbert (Française des Jeux) and Luca Paolini (Liquigas).
The group was reduced to 11 riders when Posthuma, De la Fuente and Weening dropped back. By the 29km mark, just after the town of Aiguebelle, it had pulled away to a 2:10 lead. By 34.5km, the gap increased to 4:10 and then 7:40 at 40km, by which time Pereiro’s Caisse d’Épargne-Illes Balears team had assumed control of the peloton by riding in front.
But that didn’t stop the leaders from increasing their lead, which reached a maximum of 11:10 at the foot of the first climb, the Col des Saisies, where Landis’s team came surging to the front of the pack.
Col des Saisies (Cat. 1, 82.5km)
Landis’s teammates rode furiously at the front, setting a tempo of turbo-jet proportions. In vain, the other main favorites, Evans, Klöden, Sastre and Menchov, tried to stay with Landis as he took over setting the pace when his last teammate had dug in — and suddenly the string broke. Landis was out in front and committed to a 125km solo slog to victory.
“He was like a motor bike. He was unbelievable,” said Australian Michael Rogers (T-Mobile) of Landis, who quickly gained time on the 14.9km climb with its average 6.4-percent gradient. The peloton seemingly was not interested in chasing him down.
At the summit, Landis was only 3:10 down on the breakaway; but, more importantly, already 3:25 up on the peloton led by race leader Pereiro’s teammates.
The gap on the peloton held on the descent, down the valley and through the first feed zone at Flumet after 97.5km. But Landis was making terrific inroads on the breakaway.
At Flumet, Landis was only 1:45 behind the break, and still 3:10 ahead of the peloton, a scenario that indicated he would join the leaders early on the next climb.
Col des Aravis (Cat. 2, 109km)
Up front, the breakaway was starting to lose numbers under the rigors of the alpine roads, which were baking under the steamy summer heat.
Meanwhile, Landis was tapping away in a beautiful rhythm that belied his struggle of 24 hours earlier, drawing nearer to the leaders with every pedal stroke.
Halgand threw the first hand grenade into the break, attacking alone to pass the summit by himself while Landis was already in a group of chasers at 1:15.
The peloton, meanwhile, was still losing time, despite Caisse d’Épargne leading the way, and other teams with top-order riders, T-Mobile, CSC and Ag2r, still having numbers in it.
Col de la Colombière (Cat. 1, 134km)
Landis continued to forge ahead. His cadence, power and willpower helped him catch Halgand and extend his lead further. His speed was simply overwhelming for those survivors of the initial break who tried to stay with him. And soon only Halgand and Sinkewitz were on Landis’s wheel.
Landis was the engine in this trio, as Halgand (struggling) and Sinkewitz (hardly able to work due to his priority to defend Klöden’s interests) stayed on his wheel.
A touch of drama came 5km into the 11.8km climb to the Colombière’s 5282-foot summit when Landis suddenly stopped and change bikes.
Landis’s desperation was clear as he screamed, “Go … go … go,” to his Phonak team mechanic as he pushed him back into the race after giving him a replacement bike.
Sinkewitz and Halgand appeared to accelerate when they turned around and saw Landis adrift; but they were unable to drop the American, who quickly got back onto the duo’s wheels.
Instead of sitting in their draft, though, Landis promptly re-took his front position and continued with his ferocious turn of speed toward the summit.
The prospect of Landis taking back the yellow jersey was quickly becoming a reality, as the group containing Pereiro and all the other favorites had trouble organizing.
Caisse d’Épargne had been doing all the work thus far, but then Pereiro’s team started to lose numbers and by the summit the race leader was on first wheel with only one teammate on the front.
Even more worrying, Pereiro was suddenly the rider with his back against the wall as the gap between his group and Landis and Sinkewitz, who had dropped Halgand, increased to 8:33. Landis, who began the day 8:08 down, was the virtual yellow jersey.
However, Pereiro by now was not the only top-10 rider who was worrying. For as the Spaniard’s yellow jersey was under threat, so too were the positions of the others.
Côte de Châtillon-sur-Cluses (Cat. 3, 162km)
It took the descent and run up the valley to the fourth climb of the day, the Côte de Châtillon-sur-Cluses to reinstall order in the group of 45 or so riders behind Landis.
It was a game of poker on wheels as each of the teams with numbers looked to each other to work. Suddenly heads were turning; no doubt the discussion being about who should work.
T-Mobile balked, although Rogers came through to the front for a brief spell. But it was not until Jens Voigt (CSC) charged to the front midway up the climb that some commitment finally appeared. Meanwhile, Landis’s lead had passed nine minutes.
It was clear that this final alpine stage of the 2006 Tour was going to end in a showdown on the painfully steep, narrow and lumpy roads to the summit of the Col de Joux-Plane.
First up on the Tour de France under card would be the showdown between Landis and every other top-10 contender.
Second, whether Landis was to be caught or not, there would also be the desperate scrap between the surviving big hitters in the group chasing him
Col de Joux-Plane (Hors-cat., 188.5km)
A tail wind blew behind the break and chasing peloton all the way along the valley toward the foot of this final major climb of the Tour. And the anticipation for the battle ahead increased as Landis’s lead dropped like a barometer: from eight minutes to 7:25 with 25km to go.
The Joux-Plane lived up to its reputation as arguably the hardest climb of the 2006 Tour. After turning left on its early pitches, it rose like a wall. And on its average 9-percent gradient there was little respite to the summit at 5548 feet.
T-Mobile took over the responsibilities as the Joux-Plane ominously loomed before Landis and Sinkewitz, followed by the chase group that now numbered about 30 riders.
There was no stopping Landis from throwing his all into this bold bid for glory. And 500 meters into the 11.7km climb, he dropped Sinkewitz, despite the German having sat on his wheel for 70km.
The chasers were now at 6:15, led by CSC after the T-Mobile riders began to lose energy. On the climb’s early slopes, Fränk Schleck and Sastre (both CSC) became the aggressors, their two-up attack splintering the group and finally leaving Sastre out alone and striving to gain as much time as possible on Pereiro’s group in his bid to take the yellow jersey.
It was an effective move. Not only did it set Sastre up for a ride that would place him in the box seat of a possible Tour victory, it also ignited a rally of attacks and chases.
Moreau launched one attack soon after Sastre blasted off, his move quickly being marked by Evans. But that failed to stay away and soon they were joined by their former companions, including Pereiro. Another surge came from Italian Damiano Cunego (Lampre) who was caught by Moreau in a rejuvenated effort.
As Landis churned away with Sastre in dogged pursuit, the yellow-jersey group of Pereiro basically yo-yoed its way to the top as it splintered, regrouped and splintered again.
At the summit, Landis led by 5:02 over Sastre, 5:59 over Moreau, 6:19 on Cunego and 6:52 on Pereiro’s five-man group — which did not include Evans. The Australian was in a threesome that passed the summit at 7:22.
From the summit, what awaited the attackers, chasers, and stragglers alike was the dangerously steep and technical 12km descent, which threatened to be as influential on time gains and losses as the climb itself. Fortunately it did not claim too many victims.
The one rider who crashed was Dessel, on a left turn that saw him somersault over his handlebars and into a grassy ditch that, luckily, left him only dirtied and bruised.
By now the stage had been won and lost; but still leaving the Tour with a big question mark. Who would win this year’s Tour de France? Despite the 30 seconds embracing Pereiro, Sastre and Landis on overall time and their strong jump on Klöden and Evans overall, many were still too wary to tip a winner of this most unpredictable of Tours.
1. Floyd Landis (USA), Phonak
2. Carlos Sastre (Sp), CSC, at 5:42
3. Christophe Moreau (F), Ag2r Prevoyance, at 5:58
4. Damiano Cunego (I), Lampre, at 6:40
5. Michael Boogerd (Nl), Rabobank, at 7:08
6. Frank Schleck (Lux), CSC, same time
7. Oscar Pereiro Sio (Sp), Caisse d’Epargne-I.B., s.t.
8. Andréas Klöden (G), T-Mobile, s.t.
9. Haimar Zubeldia (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, s.t.
10. Cadel Evans (Aus), Davitamon-Lotto, at 7:20
1. Oscar Pereiro Sio (Sp), Caisse d’Epargne-I.B.
2. Carlos Sastre (Sp), CSC, at 0:12
3. Floyd Landis (USA), Phonak, at 0:30
4. Andréas Klöden (G), T-Mobile, 02:29
5. Cadel Evans (Aus), Davitamon-Lotto, 03:08
6. Denis Menchov (Rus), Rabobank, 04:14
7. Cyril Dessel (F), Ag2r Prevoyance, 04:24
8. Christophe Moreau (F), Ag2r Prevoyance, 05:45
9. Haimar Zubeldia (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, 08:16
To see how the stage unfolded, simply CLICKHERE to open our Live Update Window.