Friday, July 21, 2006

Stage 17 - Thursday, July 20: Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne- Morzine, 200.5 km

Stage 17 was not going to be a routine stage, but I don't think anyone (not matter what they say after the stage) expected it to shake up the GC as much as it did. Long before I woke up (which was about 7:50 due to my inability so set my alarm -- so I missed most of the pre-race show) there were breaks that were eventually successful. But, in the end, that's not necessarily the story.

Of course, Philippe Gilbert was in the break and I always want him to win. But it was not to be. In fact, it was not a day for the breakaway to last. But the break was there, working away. There were no contenders in the group and that was that. But then, much to everyone's surprise (except for Phonak), Landis' team road at the front of the peloton and basically launched him off the front.

Everyone knew he wanted a stage, because that was the least he could managed after losing the yellow jersey (and the race) in such a spectacular fashion. Off he went and when we started our live coverage at about 8 am, he was maybe three minutes off the front of the peloton. And he kept riding and riding. And then some more. And then suddenly he was in the breakaway. Most likely they were all completely surprised because really, Landis?

Landis rode with them, doing work. He pushed the break to its limits, spilling them up. Much to my chagrin, Gilbert couldn’t hang on. Eventually all the riders except for T-Mobile’s Patrik Sinkewitz were dropped, unable to keep up the pace. Landis rode on, dragging Sinkewitz with him. The T-Mobile rider was of course unable to do any work. I’m sure he had instructions to sit on Landis and try to slow him down.

What no one realized, not even the commentators, was the there was no slowing Landis down. He pulled Sinkewitz with little effort (so to speak) and eventually dropped him as well. He went on alone and behind him? No one was chasing. Time and again people asked if this was because they didn’t see Landis as a threat and the answer was no, that’s not why. They just couldn’t seem to get the chase to work.
T-Mobile took over and the chase started in earnest. But there was no pulling Landis back. Carlos Sastre was the only one who really responded at first. He flew off the front and worked his way toward Landis. For awhile it looked like he might actually get to him, but it was not to be. Instead it became all a matter of time.

What was even more interesting was the fact that, at one point, Landis put so much time between himself and everyone else that he was the ‘virtual’ yellow jersey. Of course that wasn’t going to last, but for a guy who was eight minutes back, that was pretty amazing. And it said a lot for poor Oscar Pereiro who was in obvious trouble. Not necessarily the kind of trouble Landis had been in the day before, but trouble all the same.

He’d worked his team down until there was only one teammate helping him. And even then he was still going out the back. He and Michael Rasmussen worked together for awhile, but then both of them went their separate ways. Rasmussen later crossed the line with Denis Menchov, who just didn’t have the legs to win the tour this year.

But the yellow jersey is magic. Because no matter how down and out Pereiro looked, he always managed to find the strength to fight back. And, in the end, Pereiro kept his yellow jersey. Sastre road himself into second place, but the biggest surprise was neither of those things.

It wasn’t even that Landis had ridden so well after such a disaster the day before. Nor was it that he won the stage. It was that he rode himself from ninth place to third place. He’s now only 30 seconds down from the lead. Going from eight minutes back to 30 seconds back is crazy and unheard of. Most people didn’t even think it was possible. I certainly didn’t.

I also don’t think it’s the greatest single day of bike racing ever – but it was history. It was amazing and awesome. And I’d just like to say to France, how’s that for panache?

Tomorrow will not, of course, factor into the GC competition, except to serve as something of a rest day for the contenders and give some other riders a chance to win a stage. But it’ll be the time trial on Saturday that will determine the winner of the stage. I cannot wait.

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