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Landis takes back yellow jersey in Stage 19

7/23/2006

MONTCEAU-LES-MINES, France -- Barring a crazy finale, Floyd
Landis' wild ride through France should end in the sweetest way
possible Sunday on the Champs-Elysees.

With yet another stunning comeback in the final time trial,
Landis reclaimed the famed yellow jersey of the Tour de France
leader Saturday along with a 59-second lead that should land him
atop the victory podium in Paris.

The American would be picking up where another American left off
just last year, when Lance Armstrong completed his seventh and
final Tour triumph.

"I could not be happier," Landis said. "It's one of the best
days of my life."

The Phonak team leader, who trailed former teammate Oscar
Pereiro of Spain by 30 seconds before the penultimate Stage 19,
outpaced the Spaniard by 1 minute, 29 seconds in the race against
the clock.

Overall, Pereiro fell to second, 59 seconds behind Landis, while
German rider Andreas Kloeden, 1:29 back, pushed Spaniard Carlos
Sastre off the podium into fourth.

Sunday's ride could be the most anticlimactic moment of this
unpredictable Tour, marked by Landis' bizarre performance swings --
from despair to elation -- and news that he's been riding with an
arthritic hip.

Landis and Pereiro have taken turns wearing yellow four times
since Landis first won it in the Pyrenees after Stage 11. Seven
riders have worn the jersey this time -- one short of the record.

"Hopefully, I won't give it away again," Landis said. "But I
do think it's over now."

Landis became an instant legend among many cycling fans with his
rage-fueled comeback Thursday, when he won the last of three Alpine
stages to move from 11th to third in the overall standings.

After a strong ride Tuesday on the famed L'Alpe d'Huez ascent to
take the leader's jersey for the second time in the Tour, Landis
planned a conservative, Armstrong-like strategy.

That didn't work out.

Instead, he was forced to ride all-out after nearly crumbling in
Wednesday's uphill finish in La Toussuire -- where he lost the lead
and fell 8:08 behind Pereiro.

The performance left him feeling "humiliation and depression,"
Landis said. A pep talk from five-time Tour winner and cycling icon
Eddy Merckx, the father of his Phonak teammate Axel Merckx, helped.

A once-in-a-lifetime ride -- "the best performance in the modern
history of the Tour" according to race director Jean-Marie Leblanc
-- revived Landis' sagging chances. In his first Tour stage win,
Landis closed the time gap from 8 minutes, 8 seconds to an
incredible 30 seconds.

Saturday's time-trial was the finishing touch.

Landis, who finished second in the stage 7 time trial, had been
expected to do well. Pereiro, sensing his lead in danger, mustered
a strong ride of his own, finishing fourth and 1:29 behind Landis.

It wasn't enough.

"When the yellow jersey is on the line, people get inspired,"
Landis said. "I think we all learned a lesson in persistence."

Ukraine's Serhiy Honchar won the time-trial, by dominating the
field just as he had in the first time trial two weeks ago.

Honchar finished the 35.4-mile course from Le Creusot to
Montceau-les-Mines in 1 hour, 7 minutes, 46 seconds. Germany's
Kloeden was second, 41 seconds back. Landis placed third, 1:11 off
the winner's pace.

Sastre, the other title threat, entered Saturday's stage in
second place. But he crossed the line 4:41 back of Honchar to drop
to fourth overall, 3:13 back of the American.

The Tour got its first jolt on the eve of the July 1 start, when
prerace favorites Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich, plus seven other
riders, were sent home after they were implicated in a Spanish
doping investigation.

Asked about those riders, Landis got a bit short-tempered.

"It was an unfortunate situation for all of us," Landis said,
"and none of us in any way got any satisfaction out of the fact
that they're not here."

The bum hip will be Landis' first order of business once the race
ends. He plans to have surgery this fall to ease the lingering pain
in his right hip, damaged in a 2003 crash.

Winning the Tour before the hip replacement surgery would make
it all the more sweeter.

"I'll fight as hard as I have in this race to come back next
year, or the following year -- whatever it takes -- to be here
again," he said.

An acolyte of Armstrong for three years on the U.S. Postal
Service squad, Landis said that stint was vital in learning how to
ride to win and focus on a single leader.

Landis grew up in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, the
son of Mennonites. He said he was too "high-strung" for the
religion, which shuns organized sports and fame-seeking. As a boy,
his parents tried to discourage him from riding his bike.

Now, he's at the sport's pinnacle.

"At least the people watching got a good show," said Landis,
who was raised without a TV at home. "It was probably better for
television than it was for us."

Landis, unlike Armstrong, speaks little French. He says his
vocabulary consists of the words for "beer" and "coffee."
Still, his performance has endeared him to fans, and he has made it
a point to master one phrase -- "Merci beaucoup."