Landis different kind of Tour de France leader

Updated: July 18, 2006, 5:20 PM ET
By Andrew Hood | Special to ESPN.com

L'ALPE D'HUEZ, France -- Don't ever play Texas hold 'em with new Tour de France race leader Floyd Landis. The 30-year-old has the best poker face in the business.

First, he hid cycling's best-kept secret for two years about a career-threatening injury that will require complex hip reconstruction surgery within months.

And after slipping back into the yellow jersey in Tuesday's epic climbing stage to L'Alpe d'Huez, he's doing his level best to convince everyone he really doesn't want to win the Tour in commanding style.

Floyd Landis
Friedemann Vogel/Bongarts/Getty ImagesFloyd Landis said Tuesday that his priority is not to win stages but to be wearing yellow in Paris.

"I will be conservative. I don't feel the need to win any of those stages," Landis said after moving back into yellow with a 10-second lead on Spain's Oscar Pereiro. "The only objective in this Tour is to wear the yellow jersey in Paris."

With five days left in the 93rd Tour, Landis is looking more and more like the man to beat, but he's not acting like one.

Rather than stamp his authority on the race like Lance Armstrong did for seven consecutive years or use audacity to win the race a la Marco Pantani in 1998 or Bjarne Riis in 1996, Landis seems to be trying to win the Tour with a precise, calculated algebra.

"If I win the race without winning a stage, I will be very, very happy," Landis said with a straight face.

So far, it's working. On Tuesday, he erased a 1:29 deficit to Pereiro back into the yellow jersey. He put some time between himself and rivals Cadel Evans and Denis Menchov and didn't even break a sweat.

Unlike Armstrong, who would stampede to stage victories and crush the field, Landis is using the minimal force for the maximum gain.

He's keeping his cards close to his chest. He doesn't want to reveal his winning hand until the Champs-Elysees on Sunday.

"I'm a pretty good actor," Landis continued. "I would just as soon not let you know when I am on the red line. I felt good [Tuesday] and I didn't feel like it was necessary to take time out on the other guys. I will be conservative."

Landis would just as soon have Pereiro keep the yellow jersey going into Wednesday's hard climbing stage to La Toussuire.

"It's unfortunate that [Pereiro] couldn't hang onto it [Tuesday] because he fought hard and I wouldn't mind if he kept it for another day," Landis said. "Our tactics on the final climb were to be conservative. Again, it worked out that [Andreas] Kloeden was so strong. He did most of the work."

So far, the yellow jersey has been a hot potato passed between seven riders, just one shy of the eight-rider record set in 1987.

Two days after surging into the yellow jersey in the Pyrenees, Landis raised some eyebrows when he purposely let a breakaway chug almost 30 minutes off the front to put Pereiro into the yellow jersey.

The idea was to take pressure off his Phonak team, a hodgepodge of experienced old war hands who are rallying around Landis' quirky personality and wrought-iron legs.

So why all the hesitancy?

Landis is obsessing about "saving his team," a tactic that's confounding observers who grew accustomed to watching Armstrong and his renowned "blue train" bury the competition for seven straight Julys.

Landis is the first to admit that his Swiss-based team isn't as strong as what the world saw each July under the U.S. Postal Service/Discovery Channel banner. The team is rich in rouleurs and middle-weight climbers but has no true mountain goats to help Landis on the menacing steeps of 10-mile climbs in the Alps.

"Bicycle racing is a tactical game," he explained. "I would like to save my team as much as possible. I will do whatever I can do to race conservatively. I think that shows a great deal of confidence in me and my team. I'm very proud of what we've done so far."

Phonak rode well Tuesday. Spanish bulldog Miguel Angel Martin Perdiguero rode so hard at the base of the L'Alpe d'Huez that he blew apart the peloton at the foot of the 10-mile climb to spring Landis clear with just the top favorites.

Earlier in the stage, Axel Merckx, son of cycling legend Eddy Merckx, worked himself into the day's main breakaway, then eased up on the upper reaches of L'Alpe d'Huez and helped tow Landis the final kilometers.

"We didn't want to kill the race because we didn't want to kill ourselves," Phonak manager John Lelangue said. "We could have made a big effort to really increase our advantage, but it may have made things difficult for tomorrow's stage."

It's that kind of calculated, close-to-the-rivet racing that's making some wonder whether Landis' team is strong enough to defend the yellow jersey to Paris.

Landis insists it is, but he acknowledges that there are no supermen who can lead the entire peloton over climb after climb.

He's pegging his entire strategy on rolling out of three days in the Alps with enough gap to cement the victory in Saturday's decisive 57-kilometer time trial.

"My objective is to not lose time before the time trial because that's my strength against the others and I have confidence in my time trial," Landis explained. "My whole strategy is to get to the time trial in position to win."

There are still six riders within three minutes of Landis. Any miscalculation could prove fatal to his hopes.

Landis looks more and more likely to become Armstrong's successor, but he's not doing it with any great sense of urgency.

Andrew Hood is a freelance writer based in Spain who has covered the Tour de France for ESPN.com since 1996.

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