PLA-DE-BERET, Spain -- American Floyd Landis took the race
leader's yellow jersey on Thursday on the Tour de France's hardest
stage in the Pyrenees, which was won by Russian Denis Menchov.
Landis took the lead from France's Cyril Dessel, confirming himself as the favorite to succeed seven-time champion Lance Armstrong, his former teammate.
"I would just as soon have waited to get the yellow jersey and race easy just to let someone else do the work but you can't turn down the chance," Landis said.
Menchov, American Levi Leipheimer and Landis finished in a group together, with the Russian winning a sprint to the line to finish in 6 hours, 6 minutes and 25 seconds.
Landis was third and now has an 8 second lead over Dessel. Menchov is 1:01 behind Landis, with Australian Cadel Evans in fourth overall, 1:17 back.
"To win the stage was not my objective today, I'm not a very good sprinter anyway. Our goal is to win the Tour and I wanted to open gaps as wide as possible with the other general
classification pretenders," Landis said.
He smiled as he donned the prized jersey for the first time in his career. Carrying a fluffy lion and a bunch of flowers, he thrust his hands into the air on the podium.
"Floyd Landis is without doubt the favorite," Menchov said through a translator on French television.
Landis announced this week that he has a painful arthritic hip that he intends to get replaced after the three-week race. Asked on French television whether this Tour might be his last, the 30-year-old replied, "It's a possibility."
He also said his damaged hip could hinder his chances of defending the lead all the way to Paris.
"It's a possibility, but ordinarily with this condition it's a slow process and it isn't a catastrophic failure in one day, so
it's unlikely at this point that it will be so much of a problem
that it will affect the race," he said.
The stage win was Menchov's first in six Tours. He won the Tour of Spain last year after the rider that placed first, Roberto Heras, was stripped of the title following a positive drug test.
Thursday's 128-mile stage had four arduous ascents before the decisive battle was waged on the final ascent, the first-category Pla-de-Beret. Menchov, Leipheimer and Landis were among the first group of eight riders to reach the slope which has an average gradient of 5.5 percent.
Menchov's teammates, Mickael Rasmussen, the 2005 polka-dot jersey winner, then Michael Boogerd, stepped up a gear in the ascent to Pla-de-Beret, pulling away to leave German Andreas Kloeden alone, his face a mask of pain.
Christophe Moreau of France, Kloeden and Michael Boogerd of the Netherlands were soon dropped, followed by Spaniard Carlos Sastre and Evans.
Menchov, Leipheimer and Landis were left to force their their way between two undulating walls of orange-clad Spanish supporters.
Spaniard David De La Fuente claimed the best climber's polka-dot jersey from Dessel after breaking away with three other riders.
The Alps next week could be decisive. "Everything will be
decided in the last weeks in the Alps," Menchov said.
Some riders expected to do well Thursday instead struggled,
including American George Hincapie, who was left far behind, and
Basque climber Iban Mayo, who abandoned the race.
"It's just not coming together for me. Very disappointed,"
said Hincapie, who placed 46th, a whopping 21:23 back. The race for
the overall title "is over for me," he said.
German Andreas Kloeden, considered a top contender, finished
ninth, 1:31 behind Menchov, Leipheimer and Landis, who were all
credited with the same time.
Kloeden, runner-up to Armstrong at the 2004 Tour, now trails
Landis by 2:29 overall.
The race ends in Paris on July 23.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.