Fabulous Floyd takes the maillot jaune

The final test of the 2006 Tour de France saw no real surprises. Evergreen TT train from Ukraine,...

Podium positions decided as Gonchar takes two out of two

The final test of the 2006 Tour de France saw no real surprises. Evergreen TT train from Ukraine, Serguei Gonchar, once again asserted his dominance in the race of truth, notching his second time trial victory, while a resurgent Floyd Landis continued his fairytale comeback from two days ago, his third place 1'29 faster than overnight leader Oscar Pereiro, and more than enough to place him back into the maillot jaune.

"Well, I was confident," said Landis, "But when the yellow jersey is on the line, I knew he'd be inspired and that it wasn't going to be easy.

"Pereiro did an exceptional time trial; I was also a little concerned about the four-hour time trial I did two days ago. That took a lot of energy out of me, so I hoped I would be okay," he said.

With just the traditional afternoon procession to Paris' Champs-Elysées remaining, it's more than likely a maillot jaune for keeps. But first, a comment from today's stage winner, who said that despite being one of the favourites, he didn't expect to be so good.

"I wasn't very convinced this morning," said Gonchar on his chances. "But everybody in the team wanted to do a good chrono because we could improve our position in the teams classification. I wanted to surprise myself and I think I did that today."

Asked how he managed to turn around his below-par performance in the Alps so swiftly, the sprightly 36 year-old replied: "It's a mystery to me as well."

"I was ill in the Alps and I had to take antibiotics. But this morning, our team manager told us that we had to fight for the teams classification, so that's what I did."

It was always going to be an uphill battle for Pereiro to keep the maillot jaune, but at the first time check after 16.5 kilometres, the 28 year-old Spaniard was only 10 seconds down on Landis. He was allowed to lose another 19 seconds more, and while he resisted, Pereiro eventually succumbed to the strawberry-haired blonde by one and a half minutes. Nevertheless, second step on the Paris podium is most certainly nothing to sneeze at, and everything to write home about.

Another surprised at his own performance was Gonchar's team-mate Andreas Klöden, and so he should be. 2'29 down on Pereiro at the start of the day, the 31 year-old T-Mobile man rode the race of his life to finish second on the stage, just 41 seconds down on Gonchar.

More importantly, however, Klöden moved into third place overall by almost two minutes over the man he displaced, Team CSC's Carlos Sastre, who cracked on the road to Montceau-les-Mines and lost nearly five minutes to the stage winner.

"I'm overwhelmed!" he exclaimed with joy. "After the difficulties I had this spring and the setbacks in the Alps, it's great to perform so well in the last time trial. My team always believed in me; they motivated me yesterday, and this morning, they told me I could do it.

"I actually asked my directeur-sportif Valerio Piva not to give me any times during the first 25 kilometres, as that would have only driven me crazy," said Klöden. "When he started giving me the times, I was already one and a half minutes' ahead of Sastre.

"Of course, that motivated me a lot, and I had Serguei's times as well to gauge myself. In the end, I had Cadel Evans in front of me, so that psyched me again. It certainly was one of my best time trials ever."

Apart from first and second places as well as third and fourth positions on GC being reversed, the rest of the top ten remained unchanged - Cadel Evans (Davitamon-Lotto), Denis Menchov (Rabobank), Cyril Dessel (AG2R-Prevoyance), Christophe Moreau (AG2R-Prevoyance), Haimar Zubeldia (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Michael Rogers (T-Mobile) all held their fifth to tenth spots on the Classement Général.

A little further down the leaderboard, youngsters Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Fondital) and Marcus Fothen (Gerolsteiner) were duking it out to see who would become the best young rider of the 93rd Tour de France. Since his fantastic ride to L'Alpe d'Huez where he finished second to Fränk Schleck, 'Kid' Cunego has been riding like a man reborn, and today provided proof of that, holding off Fothen by half a minute to keep his maillot blanc.

"I'm delighted - this is the best time trial I've ever done," he said.

"I had some doubts this morning, but it's true that at the end of the Tour, the legs count more than being a specialist in the time trial.

"I dreamed about Fothen last night!" remarked Cunego with a smile. "I deeply wanted to win this jersey; this time trial is a good test for the future. This experience at the Tour shows me that the best result can come with serenity instead of pressure."

Lamented Fothen, "I think I gave it all I had... I didn't expect that Cunego would ride so fast; I don't know if anybody did. That was a great performance from him."

Floyd Landis may be saying the Tour's not over till it's over; understandably, it's a little premature to ask him how it feels to win the world's biggest bike race and begin a new chapter in the history of La Grande Boucle. Though barring disaster, a little after half-past five tomorrow afternoon, he'll need to have an answer to these questions. And plenty more.

"I wished and hoped that some day I'd have the opportunity to be the leader of a team and to get the jersey," said Landis on his time riding with seven-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong. "I know that it takes a lot of hard work and a lot of sacrifices from a lot of people. Then, on top of that, some luck. So I feel lucky."

How it unfolded

By Tim Maloney

The penultimate stage of the 2006 Tour De France was a rolling time test over a course that is similar to one that Jan Ullrich won in 1998 from Montceau-les-Mines to Le Creusot. Ullrich beat Bobby Julich by 1'01 eight years ago, with the late Marco Pantani third. The long TT was where riders had little chance to recover and was a great test for which riders still had energy at the end of a long and difficult, wide open Tour.

The weather was hot and very humid eight years ago, as it was today, with temperatures expected to rise into the mid-thirties. 141 riders would exit the start house on Saturday for the long, tough time trial. Davitamon-Lotto's Wim Vansevenant was the first man off at 11:15 and set the fastest time, but the first serious time was from Phonak rider big Bert Grabsch, who set an excellent time, 1h11'28 for an average speed of 47.85 km/h, but first it was 40 year-old 2000 Olympic TT champ Slava Ekimov (Discovery) who bested Grabsch by 0'02, then CSC's Dave Zabriskie powered home six seconds under Eki's time to take the lead. But Dave Z wasn't long in the hot seat as German Seppel Lang in his elegant white German National Champion's jersey flew home in Montceau-les-Mines in 1h11'03, 0'17 faster than Zabriskie.

Out on the parcours of Stage 19, a Ukrainian TGV was out of control as stage 7 winner, T-Mobile's Sergei Gonchar, was fastest at all the time checks. Finally he humped and pumped his 55X11 over the finish line with the tremendous time of 1h07'45, an average speed of 50.48 km/h.

Gerolsteiner's Marcus Fothen finished in 1'12'00 and many expected him to take the maillot blanc of best young rider, but tough little Italian Damiano Cunego (Lampre) wasn't having it. Clad in his white skinsuit, Cunego not only held off Fothen, who had beaten him by 5'00 in the stage 7 TT, but the young Italian had the best time trial of his career: 1'11'29 for for an eventual 10th best time. He would now finish his first Tour De France

Floyd Landis (Phonak) started off at 16:19 and went out hard, passing through the first time check in Montchanin-le-Haut (16.5km) in 19'46, already pulling 10 seconds back on Pereiro and setting the new best time.

In Montcenis after 34.4km, Andreas Klöden had a fast 41'52, then Landis powered across the mid race time check in 41'45, now the second fastest time. Landis was 0'26 behind Gonchar's and the Phonak man had also lost some time to Klöden, who had closed within 0'07 of him. But maillot jaune Pereiro had already lost time to Landis, who was now maillot jaune virtuel, 0'15 ahead of the Caisse d'Epargne man.

CSC's second placed on GC Carlos Sastre came through Montcenis in 44'05 for 16th fastest and was 2'13 behind Klöden and just about to lose his podium place. Maillot jaune Pereiro was hanging tough and motivated by his precious tunic of race leadership. The Caisse d'Epargne rider was at 42'42 after 34.5 km and had already lost 0'57 to Landis and was 1'00 slower than Klöden, but had a 2'29 margin on the German and was looking good to finish as runner-up in Paris.

At the third time check in Villa-Sirot after 51.5km, Gonchar's was still fastest at 1h02'36. Klöden had ridden through in 1h03'22, 0'47 slower than his T-Mobile teammate and then caught his three minute man Cadel Evans in the last kilometre. After a fast start, Landis had faded over the second half of the long TT and was third fastest at 51km in 1h03'44, and the American then finished his race against the clock in 1'08'56, enough to take over the maillot jaune and take command of the 93rd Tour De France.

CSC's Carlos Sastre tried with all he had in the long ITT, but the Spanish climber crossed the line in 1h12'27 for 20th, falling to 4th place. Maillot jaune Pereiro was still riding with class and force, and had the best TT performance of his career to finish in 1h10'25 for 4th, and his superb effort held off Klöden for second place. Chapeau to T-Mobile's Sergei Gonchar's for dominating both time trials at this year's Tour De France as he won Stage 7 in Rennes and Stage 19 in Montceau-les-Mines. Good rides also on Stage 19 from David Zabriskie (CSC) in 6th, Discovery Channel's 40 year old hard man Viatcheslav Ekimov in 7th, best young rider Damiano Cunego (Lampre) in 10th, and comeback rider of Le Tour, David Millar (SDV) in 11th.

Today was the fifth time in recent history that the maillot jaune changed hands after the final time trial at the Tour De France. In 1978 Hinault took charge, then 1987 when Roche beat Delgado and 1989 and 1990 when LeMond beat Fignon and then Chiappucci to win Le Grande Boucle.

With only Stage 20's 152km separating the Tour peloton from the final parties in Paris, Floyd Landis looks like he has his first Tour De France win all but locked up, while gutsy runner-up Oscar Pereiro Sio at 0'59 and smooth operator Andreas Klöden (T-Mobile) at 1'29 will round out the podium at the finish. Team CSC's Carlos Sastre tried valiantly to fill the shoes of Ivan Basso, but the Spanish climber just wasn't strong enough against the watch and fell off the podium after Stage 19. 5th place Davitamon-Lotto's Aussie Cadel Evans leaped like a 'roo up the GC ladder after his 8th place last season and can still improve his Tour performances in the years to come.

Rabobank's rockin' Russian Denis Menchov ended up a respectable sixth and had a stage win, but more was expected at this Tour from the defacto winner of the '05 Vuelta. Once again, AG2R-Prevoyance showed they are the best French team even though they don't have the biggest budget, placing two French riders in the top 10 with audacious unknown Cyril Dessel in 7th and old warhorse Christophe Moreau in 8th. Steady, smart riding got Haimar Zubeldia (Euskaltel) back into the top 10 in 9th place, while Aussie World TT champ Mick Rogers (T-Mobile) had his best ever Tour finish to round out the top 10.

12th place Damiano Cunego (Lampre) will take the maillot blanc of best young rider back home to Italy after his first Tour, closing strongly with good climbing and a strong TT in the third week and showing he's got potential to come back to Le Tour and move up the GC ladder in the future. Props to CSC's Christian Vandevelde. The likeable American from Lemont, Ill. Was in the form of his life and despite doing yeoman's work all Tour long, he still finished this Tour in 24th place.

Finishing 13th, Gerolsteiner's Levi Leipheimer was a disappointment at the 2006 Tour and even if the American could get back the 6-plus minutes he lost in Stage 7's TT, the would have still finished just inside the top 10. With José Azevedo in 19th place, Yaroslav Popovych in 25th and George Hincapie in 32nd, it's decidedly back to the drawing board for Discovery Channel's sports director Johan Bruyneel, as for the first time in almost a decade, the Belgian will not direct the winning rider and team at the Tour De France. But barring any unforeseen circumstances, tomorrow afternoon on the Champs-Elysees, the remaining riders, team staff and hundreds of thousands of the assembled masses will hear the Star Spangled Banner play as Floyd Landis is crowned Tour De France champion.

Stage 20 - Sunday, July 23: Antony (Parc de Sceaux)-Paris Champs-Elysées / 154.5 km

It's fun, fun, fun on the final stage as the maillot jaune and his team celebrate on the way to the Champs-Elysées for the final 50km criterium around the French capital, then the pomp and circumstances to crown the new Tour champ. With Boonen gone, it must be maillot vert Robbie 'Aussie Oi Oi Oi' McEwen as the winner.

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