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Without a shadow of a doubt, today will go down as one of the finest stages in modern Tour de France...
Floyd Landis (Phonak) attacks on the Col des Saisies
Without a shadow of a doubt, today will go down as one of the finest stages in modern Tour de France history. Today, a 28 year-old American by the name of Floyd Landis, written off by most after his collapse of yesterday, staged a comeback that defied logic. And in one fell swoop, he finds himself back in contention to win the 2006 Tour de France. His stage win was reminiscent of Charly Gaul's 100 km breakaway in the Alps in the 1958 Tour to put himself back into contention from a seemingly lost position, before Gaul went onto win the final time trial and the Tour de France.
"I don't expect to win the Tour at this point," said Landis after his ride yesterday. "It's not easy to get back eight minutes. But I'm gonna fight, because you never know what's going to happen next."
No, Floyd, we didn't expect you to win, either. No, Floyd, it's not easy to reverse an eight-minute time deficit four days from the finish of a Grand Tour. No, Floyd, we didn't know what would happen next...
... But Floyd, when did you know you were going to do what you did today?
"The plan was from the beginning," he replied. "I was very disappointed yesterday. For me to have a bad day was something I couldn't control. But today I thought, 'I could at least show them that I could keep fighting'.
"After that, all I could do was hope that behind me they were disorganised or not strong enough to catch me. I didn't have a whole lot of information. I only had the time differences every now and then. It's hard to tell what's going on behind."
His solo move, on the first of the day's five climbs and 128.5 kilometres from the finish in Morzine, quite simply looked irrational by the very nature of what lay ahead. However, as the fiery-eyed Phonak leader continued to turn a massive gear kilometre after kilometre, downing bidon after bidon, and picking off and spitting out each of the eleven members of the early breakaway one by one, the numbers game began turning in Floyd's favour.
"When the time gaps didn't change for a long period of time, I was pretty sure that they were working as hard as they could, and that I was going to be okay," he said.
By the summit of the final ascent of the Col de Joux-Plane, Landis had turned the groupe maillot jaune inside out and upside down. Sastre was five minutes down. Moreau was six. And Schleck, Klöden, Sinkewitz, Evans, Zubeldia and maillot jaune Pereiro were almost seven minutes in arrears.
Crossing the line outside Morzine's Place de l'Office de Tourisme, the time gaps remained much the same. It took some time after crossing the line till Landis launched into his victory salute: a powerful, swinging right-hander, filled with fire and anger. Much the same treatment he gave to his rivals today, which left each and every one of them lying on the ground, winded, battered to a pulp.
"No matter what, whether I win or not, I'm going to prove to my team that I deserved to be a leader," said Landis. "But I didn't expect that I could do it quite so well."
When Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears' Oscar Pereiro managed to get up, the 28 year-old discovered he was still the maillot jaune, but only by a matter of twelve seconds from Team CSC's Carlos Sastre.
Nervously fidgeting with his golden tunic on the podium, Oscar Pereiro looked as if he'd seen a ghost. His decision not to attend the post-race press conference was a giveaway sign of the frailty with which he now holds it; as a friend and former team-mate, Pereiro knows Landis well, and with half a minute separating the two, he also knows his days are numbered.
"It took me four minutes to realize that I still had the yellow jersey," Pereiro told Cyclingnews. "During the stage, I thought it was over for me."
"Keeping the yellow jersey is a nice prize for my team," he added. "Yesterday, we thought that Floyd was out of GC, and today he's got the Tour in his hands. Theoretically, he's going to win it. He's the hot favourite now."
An exhausted Carlos Sastre told Cyclingnews, "I'm happy, as I've done the best I could do. This Tour has certainly been the most spectacular ever.
"The Tour has been very hard, and we are all very tired now, so I don't know how we will end up. I'll try to recuperate tomorrow and do the time trial flat-out. The gaps between the top three riders are very tight... "
Asked what he thought of Landis' performance today, he replied: "I have a lot of respect for him; he is a great rider. Today, he had a sensational ride."
Based on his performances this week, Andreas Klöden's final day out in the Alps was as expected. His fourth-place overall, two and half minutes behind Pereiro, puts the T-Mobile captain within an arm's reach of the Paris podium - but the 31 year-old will need to ride the time trial of his life on Saturday to make it.
"At this Tour, anything's possible," he said. "I knew the climb, but I had bad legs today and just tried to follow."
Said Klöden said of his decision not to follow Landis early on: "I don't play roulette that early in the stage. It was [an] all or nothing [move]. Tomorrow, I'll just try to recuperate as much as I can and stay cool."
Davitamon-Lotto's Cadel Evans, a further 39 seconds behind, has about as much chance as Klöden, perhaps a little more, given his pedigree in the contre-la-montre. However, ever since the start of the race, one has the feeling we haven't seen the 29 year-old thoroughbred Aussie at his true best.
For Denis Menchov, Cyril Dessel, Christophe Moreau, Haimar Zubeldia and Michael Rogers, who make up the remaining names on the TdF leaderboard, they're all fighting an uphill battle like they did today, and more than likely, they'll stay pretty much where they are.
"The Joux-Plane was the hardest climb of the Tour - it wasn't the right day for me on that climb!" said Rogers, half-joking.
"Floyd went off like a motorbike, unbelievable! He was doing forty kilometres an hour uphill! That he's able to rebound like this is fantastic. Congratulations to him.
"At T-Mobile, we had no tactics today," Rogers continued. "We just tried to hang on as long as possible. We thought the last climb would be the decisive one. Klöden had problems from the start; me too. We both struggled today. We never expected Landis to do so well today."
Strange things have happened at this year's Tour de France. Stranger things could still happen. But to bet against Floyd Landis winning the 93rd edition of La Grande Boucle would take a very brave man indeed.
"It wouldn't be any fun if I told you what was going to happen next!" Landis joked.
"What I hope happens, I think it's obvious. I'd like to win the race. The only decisive day left is the time trial. I'm fairly confident in my time trialling ability, assuming I didn't overdo it today. There's a chance of that, but we'll have to wait and see," he said.
It was already hot (30 degrees) under clear Alpine skies as the riders rolled out of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne with the official start of stage 17 given at 11.45. The beautiful morning saw one rider not start: Jose Rujano (Quick.Step), who had finished last yesterday, and was complaining about a sore throat as well as an inflamed toe.
The climbs on the menu for today were: Col des Saisies (km 82.5, Cat. 1, 14.9 km climb at 6.4 %), Col des Aravis (km 109, Cat. 2, 5.9 km climb at 7.1 %), Col de la Colombière (km 134, Cat. 1, 11.8 km climb at 5.8 %), Côte de Châtillon-sur-Cluses (km 162, Cat. 3, 5.1 km climb at 4.9 %), Col de Joux-Plane (km 188.5, HC, 11.7 km climb at 8.5 %), with two sprints scheduled at Le Grand-Bornand (km 122.0) and Verchaix (km 172.5).
The first attack of the day came from Paolo Tiralongo (Lampre-Fondital), Juan Manuel Garate (Quick-Step-Innergetic), Pietro Caucchioli (Crédit Agricole), Gilberto Simoni (Saunier Duval), Luca Paolini (Liquigas) and Anthony Geslin (Bouygues Telecom), who had 10 seconds at 6 km - but Team CSC found this break too dangerous and caught it only minutes later.
The next escape took 14 riders clear at km 12: Pavel Padrnos (Discovery Channel), Stuart O'Grady (Team CSC), Patrik Sinkewitz (T-Mobile), Joost Posthuma and Pieter Weening (Rabobank), Daniele Righi (Lampre-Fondital), Juan Manuel Garate and Bram Tankink (Quick.Step), Patrice Halgand and Christophe Le Mevel (Crédit Agricole), Stéphane Auge (Cofidis), former mountains leader David De La Fuente (Saunier Duval), Philippe Gilbert (Française Des Jeux), and Luca Paolini (Liquigas). This seemed to be the right breakaway for the GC teams, but for various reasons, three riders had to sit up: De La Fuente (being a threat to Rasmussen), Posthuma and Weening (both probably assigned to support Rabobank leader Denis Menchov).
The group was thus left with 11 members and ready to go. At km 30, their lead was already up to 1'30, and increasing rapidly. The average speed in the first hour of racing, on relatively flat terrain, was 50.3 km/h, while the peloton averaged around 43 clicks. The gap at the foot of the first climb, the Col des Saisies, was up to 11 minutes.
Yellow jersey wearer Oscar Pereiro's team, Caisse d'Epargne, and Phonak were driving the bunch, stabilising the break's lead, as the front riders started out on the difficult slopes of the Saisies. Then Phonak took over and quickly decimated the peloton, leaving it with about 30 riders, including all the overall favourites.
But the GC action began right away, as Andreas Klöden (T-Mobile) and Floyd Landis (Phonak) attacked hard after 70 kilometres of racing. Carlos Sastre (Team CSC), Michael Rogers (T-Mobile) and Cadel Evans (Davitamon-Lotto) were also able to follow the impressive move of the American, while Pereiro was in difficulty behind.
After completely missing out on yesterday's chances, the Phonak rider was determined to make up for it all the way today, and attacked again, finally dropping his companions. Klöden, Rogers, Menchov, and Evans were dropped, and opted to go back to the yellow jersey group, where Caisse d'Epargne set up the tempo for Pereiro. Landis quickly reduced the gap to the lead group to about 6 minutes, with the bunch at 6'48 minutes about halfway up the climb.
The American pushed the big chain ring up the Col des Saisies, while the front men disintegrated: Paolini and Le Mevel went out the back, as Le Mevel's teammate Halgand was the one doing the forcing. Soon, the leaders were reduced to seven riders: Patrik Sinkewitz (T-Mobile), Pavel Padrnos (Discovery Channel), Stuart O'Grady (Team CSC), Daniele Righi (Lampre-Fondital), Juan Manuel Garate, Patrice Halgand (Crédit Agricole) and Philippe Gilbert (Française Des Jeux).
At the top of the Saisies, Landis was under three minutes behind the leaders, and over three minutes ahead of the yellow jersey group, led by Pereiro's teammate Vicente Garcia Acosta. He made up more time on the descent, racing down into the valley like a demon.
In front, just after the feed zone after 97 kilometres, Halgand attacked his breakaway companions, who were back to 11 riders. Landis, in aero position, continued on his spectacular journey, catching the remainder of the break at the foot of the second climb of the day, the Col des Aravis. But many could not follow the tempo of the American, and after a few kilometres of climbing, only O'Grady and Righi were left with Padrnos, Garate, Sinkewitz and Landis.
Behind, Garcia Acosta dropped down from the maillot jaune group, and there were just two Caisse d'Epargne riders left with Pereiro, with no other team willing to help in the chase. At the top of the Aravis, the Landis group was 1'45 behind leader Halgand, while the main bunch came over 5'45 behind the Phonak rider. On the descent, Landis followed by Righi and Sinkewitz closed the gap to Halgand, putting O'Grady and Padrnos out the back.
There was no mercy in today's race itinerary. After an intermediate sprint in Le Grand-Bornand, the road went uphill again for the third ascent of the day, the Col de la Colombière. Four riders led the race: Landis, Halgand, Sinkewitz and Righi. The peloton, still led by Caisse d'Epargne followed at 5'30.
At the bottom of the Colombière, Landis accelerated and dropped Righi with 76 km to go. Sinkewitz, for his part, stayed in Landis' wheel, with Halgand the third in the chain, as the main bunch was driven by Pereiro's teammates David Arroyo and Xabier Zandio, AG2R and CSC on their wheels.
With 8 km to go before the summit, Landis was given a new bike, because one of his rear wheel's spokes snapped. But he continued straight away, and had no trouble getting back to the front.
The remainder of the chasers were caught by the bunch one by one: Gilbert, Augé... and Halgand also had to let go as Landis forced the tempo up the flatter parts halfway up the climb, on a mission to get back as much time as possible on his rivals. The gap continued to grow to 5'45, then over six minutes...
Landis was incredibly strong, pulling Sinkewitz over the climb like a motorbike. His DS in the car constantly provided him with fresh water bottles, which he mainly used to squirt over his helmet in search for a little relief. As the advantage of the Phonak rider grew over 6'30, the Caisse d'Epargne riders started to discuss things with their team director over the earpiece. T-Mobile, AG2R and Team CSC still waited to take over the work, and the gambling got to a crucial point, as Landis gained more and more time.
At the summit of the Colombière, Landis and Sinkewitz passed one minute behind Patrice Halgand, and the bunch was at 8'30, as De la Fuente sprinted up to take a few more mountain points.
In the back, Pereiro's teammate Zandio finished his work and left Arroyo alone in front. And finally, as Landis's advantage grew over 9 minutes in the descent, virtually putting him back in yellow, the other teams reacted: After 145 km of racing, Danish CSC was the first to live up to its responsibilities within the remaining overall contenders's squads, as Carlos Sastre was second-placed on GC.
Padrnos, O'Grady and Righi were still sandwiched in between the race leaders and the bunch, and in the flat section before the penultimate climb, the Côte de Châtillon-sur-Cluses, Landis again showed his excellent time trial abilities, forearms draped over the handlebars in an aero position.
Padrnos and Righi were caught by the flying bunch with 42 km to go, and the gap slowly decreased. Jens Voigt did a great job for his team - and a few clicks later, T-Mobile finally also sent its troops to the front, with Serguei Gonchar and Matthias Kessler taking over from Voigt and Vandevelde: a temporary alliance between CSC and the German team was established.
The small penultimate climb of the Côte de Châtillon-sur-Cluses was the last appetizer before the final showdown, the Col de Joux-Plane, another mythical Tour de France ascent. In the flattish part before the last climb, the gap was reduced to a little less than 8 minutes, but Landis was flat out, time trialling at about 55-60 km/h, with a light tailwind, favourable for the solo leader. O'Grady was caught, but couldn't work with his CSC teammates.
As the bunch came under the 25 km-to-go mark, the gap was still at 7'25. As Landis and Sinkewitz attacked the last climb, the Col de Joux-Plane, Halgand got caught by the bunch. This was soon to be the fate of Sinkewitz too, who just simply couldn't hold Landis back on this spectacular ride today. The T-Mobile rider, who hadn't done a turn for many kilometres, was dropped as Landis rode away, once again.
The last mountain was sure to cause some damage in the main bunch: Leipheimer was the first to go out, with most of the most of the Discovery team (Azevedo, Hincapie, Popovych) and the CSC and T-Mobile lead-out men. Soon, Carlos Sastre got a gap over the group, as Schleck drove him on; and then, the Spanish CSC leader went full gas on his own.
Christophe Moreau, who gave up his role as a helper for Dessel then and there, as well as Evans chased Sastre, who with 19 km to go, was riding at 6 minutes behind the incredible Landis. Behind them, Menchov and Boogerd followed, then Cunego and Schleck, then the yellow jersey group with Pereiro, Dessel and Klöden and most of the other GC riders.
But Evans couldn't hold Moreau's pace, and soon enough, the Frenchman was on his own trying to catch Sastre, who made up one minute over Pereiro halfway into the climb, catching Sinkewitz on the way. With 5 km before the summit, Sastre was 5'47 behind Floyd, then Moreau at 6'09, then Menchov at 6'21, then maillot jaune Pereiro at 7 minutes... It all happened there in the quest for GC, as Klöden and Dessel were in difficulty, but yo-yoed back on.
Meanwhile, Cunego accelerated in a bid to take the white jersey of Markus Fothen. He caught Moreau for a while, and even passed him, but the Frenchman came back, and then it was Cunego's turn to get dropped. Behind, Klöden was helped by Sinkewitz, trying to keep in contact with Pereiro, Rasmussen and Zubeldia, and Dessel was out the back.
The cycling world order at the summit of the Joux-Plane was: An absolutely amazing Landis, then Sastre at 5'08, Moreau at 5'58, Cunego at 6'19, Pereiro, Klöden, Schleck, Zubeldia and Boogerd at 6'52, Rasmussen, Evans, Menchov and Sinkewitz at 7'19, Dessel, Guerini and Valjavec at 8'20. Who would have thought that Landis was to make such an extraordinary come-back today?
All he had to do now was power on to the finish, which did even though the descent was quite dangerous: the tarmac, again, had melted in some parts, and the Phonak leader was cautious enough while still putting 30 seconds into Sastre. Dessel crashed on the descent, but luckily without hurting himself, as Landis celebrated his victory in the crowded Morzine.
A classic transitional stage heading west out of the Alpes from Morzine with three rated climbs including the Col de Berthiand with 66km to go. The Tour's GC is not likely to change much, as the favourites will want to rest their legs for Saturday's ITT. With the rest of the Tour peloton dog-tired, this will be a stage where strong riders can get in a break and hang on until the end. Will Chris Horner finally score a stage win in Mâcon in the heart of the Burgundy wine region?