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Landis wins Stage 17, back in contention

7/20/2006

MORZINE, France -- Written off as hopeless just a day
earlier, Floyd Landis needed a once-in-a-lifetime ride Thursday to
revive his sagging chances of victory in the Tour de France.

Did he ever deliver.

With a sensational display of brio and guts in the style of
seven-time Tour champion Lance Armstrong, the American put himself
back in the title hunt with a solo win in Thursday's last Alpine
stage.

The astonishing rebound silenced nay-sayers -- including Landis
himself -- who believed his chances to win on Sunday were doomed
after he lost more than eight minutes to the race leader in a punishing
stage just 24 hours earlier.

"I was very, very disappointed yesterday for a little while,"
Landis said. "Today I thought I could show that at least I would
keep fighting.

"No matter what -- whether I win or lose -- I wanted to prove to
my team that I deserved to be the leader," he said. "I didn't
expect it to work quite that well."

Sensing his rivals would be relatively depleted, Landis pedaled
like a man possessed -- going all out for his Phonak squad.

In the first climb, Landis brashly spurted ahead of Oscar
Pereiro, wearing the yellow jersey, and other key Tour contenders --
catching then overtaking a breakaway group that had gotten ahead
earlier.

"I took a long shot," he said, "but after all those hard
mountain stages you can usually assume that people are tired and
chasing doesn't work so well."

One by one, he left them all behind.

Landis, who rides with an injured hip, pumped his right fist in
celebration as he crossed the finish of the 124.3-mile ride -- the
last stage in the Alps -- in 5 hours, 23 minutes, 36 seconds.

He began the day in 11th place, trailing Pereiro by 8 minutes, 8
seconds. By the time he finished, he had jumped to third, and had
closed the time gap to an incredible 30 seconds.

The 30-year-old from eastern Pennsylvania's Mennonite country
slashed the deficit by finishing 7:08 ahead of Pereiro. He also
trimmed an extra 30 seconds by earning bonus points for winning the
stage and placing well in sprints.

It was a striking, stirring reversal from Wednesday, when Landis
withered almost pitifully in an uphill finish to the Tour's hardest
Alpine stage and lost the leader's yellow jersey to the Spaniard.

Race director Jean-Marie Leblanc said Landis had given "the
best performance in the modern history of the Tour," adding that
only a day earlier, he was "gone, finished, condemned."

Spain's Carlos Sastre finished second -- 5:42 after Landis -- and
held second overall, 12 seconds behind Pereiro. France's Christophe
Moreau was third, 5:58 behind.

Landis broke out ahead of top rivals early in the trek from
Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne through three hard climbs on the way to
Morzine. The last ascent, the Col de Joux-Plane, is among the
toughest in cycling.

He repeatedly doused himself with water in uphill climbs to
fight the heat, and massaged his thighs on the way down to get
ready for more punishing ascents ahead.

Even Landis' rivals were awe-struck at his comeback.

"It's incredible the way he attacked," Sastre said. "In the
last four or five kilometers, we attacked Landis with five riders -- and
he was still better."

Making it even more incredible is that Landis is riding with an
arthritic hip, an injury from a 2003 crash that he hopes to correct
with surgery this fall.

With only three stages left -- two of them mostly flat rides in
which breakaway gains are unlikely -- the stage injected new
suspense to a race poised for one of the tightest finishes in
years.

Not since American Greg Lemond edged out Frenchman Laurent
Fignon by a record-low eight seconds in 1989 has less than a minute
separated the winner from the runner-up in cycling's premiere race.

"Three riders, 30 seconds apart," Leblanc said. "See you on
Saturday" -- when the second and final time trial could determine
the winner.

The first Tour after Lance Armstrong's record seven wins has
been about as wild as they come. The Texan rarely left any doubt
about who would win going into the last few days.

With Armstrong retired -- and his legendary dominance of rivals a
memory -- the race really blew wide open on the eve of the July 1
start. That's when pre-race favorites Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso --
along with seven other riders -- were ousted after their names
turned up in a Spanish doping probe.

Seven riders have worn the yellow jersey this year -- one short
of the record. Pereiro and Landis have each worn it twice.

Along with the traditional cruise into Paris for Sunday's finish
on the Champs-Elys Dees, Friday's stage, bringing riders westward out
of the Alps, isn't seen as a big challenge.

The last big test is Saturday's race against the clock, a
35.4-mile ride that snakes from Le Creusot to Montceau-les-Mines.

It's about the same length as the first time trial in Stage 7,
though a little more hilly. In that one, Landis placed second and
was 1:10 faster than Sastre and 1:40 ahead of Pereiro.

"I'm fairly confident in my time-trialing abilities, assuming I
didn't overdo it today," Landis said. "There's a chance of that.
We'll have to wait and see."