PARIS – The craziest Tour de France in memory ended Sunday the same way the last seven had: with an American wearing the yellow jersey, this time on a Landis instead of a Lance.
After stunning feats of willpower and woeful cracks of concentration, Floyd Landis’ arthritic hip held up and he held on for the ceremonial ride over the cobblestones of the Champs-Elysees.
“I kept fighting, never stopped believing,” Landis said after leaving the winner’s podium with his daughter, Ryan.
But plenty of race fans surely had their doubts, especially after his wild ride in the Alps last week.
Landis had tried to apply Armstrong’s meticulous strategy for winning, but that went awry when he flat-out cracked in the final climb of Stage 16 on Wednesday, giving up a lead and falling 8 minutes, 8 seconds behind Spain’s Oscar Pereiro.
All but written off, he managed a stunning rebound the very next day in the last mountain stage, pedaling like a madman and closing the gap to 30 seconds.
So astounding was the turnaround that race director Jean-Marie Leblanc, who has overseen this event 18 years, called it “the best performance in the modern history of the Tour.”
The comeback was read by many as a master stroke, instantly enshrining Landis in cycling’s pantheon alongside greats such as five-time Tour champion Eddy Merckx of Belgium for his show of both human frailty and superhuman courage in the span of 24 hours.
The 30 seconds put Landis, who hails from eastern Pennsylvania’s Dutch country, in position to win by outpacing Pereiro in the final time trial Saturday.
And by the time he was done, the race was reborn – injected with the drama and swashbuckling flavor of years past, something that was lacking for nearly all of Armstrong’s seven victories.
Not that the two men won’t be inextricably linked.
A former mountain biker, Landis toiled for three years as a U.S. Postal Service team support rider for Armstrong – then broke out on his own to lead the Swiss Phonak squad.
Now, Armstrong wants him back with the Discovery Channel team, of which he is part owner.
“We’ve always been interested in Floyd; he’s a damn good rider,” Armstrong said. “We would take Floyd back. We have pursued him for some time now.”
Landis’ loyalties may be elsewhere: He dedicated the victory to Andy Rihs, the owner of the Swiss Phonak team.
As things stand now, he hopes to ride again. It all depends on how he fares after hip replacement surgery this fall for an arthritic joint still aching from a 2003 crash during a training ride.
“I’m proud and happy for Floyd,” said Armstrong, who watched the finish on TV from a hotel room near the Champs-Elysees. “He proved he was the strongest. Everybody wrote him off.”
President Bush telephoned Landis with his congratulations.
“You embody great courage. Everybody’s proud of you. You showed amazing strength and character,” said Bush, who also invited the winner and his family to the White House.
Landis becomes the third American to win the world’s most prestigious bike race, behind Armstrong and three-time winner Greg LeMond.
The first Tour apres Armstrong got off to a shaky start.
Not only was it missing the Texan’s characteristic dominance; it was missing some of the pre-race favorites, who were sent home over doping allegations even before the start.
Landis’ 57-second margin over Pereiro, who was second, was the sixth-smallest in Tour history, and the tightest since LeMond’s record-low 8 seconds over Frenchman Laurent Fignon in 1989.
Landis learned discipline at an early age.
His devout Mennonite parents, Paul and Arlene, shunned organized sports and were focused onhard work. That, in turn, was passed on to their six children. Landis didn’t have much idle time, helping his dad at the car wash, fixing washing machines and mowing the lawn.
Though the family had a car and electricity in the house, they adhered to a simple life with no television or radio.
As he grew up, Landis wanted something more – and biking provided the escape.
“Riding my bike wasn’t the problem; it was just that I got obsessed with it,” Landis recalled during an interview with the Associated Press last week. “I don’t blame them for thinking that it was absurd that you want to ride your bike that much.”
Landis now lives in Murrieta, Calif., with his wife, Amber, and daughter.
Though he learned key lessons from Armstrong – for example, how to build a team around a single rider – he insists his drive was different from Armstrong, a cancer survivor. Fewer U.S. flags lined the famed Paris avenue for the finish this time, perhaps an indication that Americans didn’t think there was much of a chance for victory without Armstrong.
Landis showed them.
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