Commentary

Top 10 American performances at Tour de France

Updated: July 11, 2008, 12:07 PM ET
By Andrew Hood | Special to ESPN.com

Greg LeMond and Lance Armstrong helped put cycling on the American map, but they're not the only Americans who gave us great moments at the Tour de France. Here are 10 to remember:

10. 2006: George Hincapie -- Yellow jersey
Wearing the prized maillot jaune, if even for one day, can make up for a lifetime of close calls and hard work. George Hincapie was the only rider to be part of all the winning teams during Lance Armstrong's seven-year Tour reign. So, it was only fitting that in 2006, a year after Armstrong retired, Hincapie wore yellow.

[+] EnlargeGeorge Hincapie
Javier Soriano/Getty ImagesAmerican rider George Hincapie wore yellow for a day in 2006.

After the big New Yorker came within 0.73 seconds of capturing yellow in the opening prologue, he got another shot. In the next day's rolling stage, a big breakaway surged off the front to gobble up two of the day's three midrace time bonuses. The group was neutralized before the day's third sprint and Hincapie wisely sprinted to third to take a 2-second time bonus, enough to make him the virtuel, on-course leader. He still had to hold off Norwegian sprinter Thor Hushovd, who was favored to win the stage and keep the jersey. When the pack came barreling in for the final sprint, Hushovd rode too close to the barriers and cut his right arm on a cardboard publicity giveaway sign handed out to fans lining the course. The bloodied Hushovd crashed but wasn't seriously hurt.

Hincapie, 35, finished safely with the main pack and grabbed the jersey. He lost it the next day on time bonuses and then faded out of contention in what was his one year to ride for his own GC (overall ranking) possibilities. Hincapie will be back this year riding for Team Columbia.

9. 2006: Floyd Landis -- Down, up and way down
The quirky Mennonite mountain biker-turned-hammerhead held the world in his palm, if only for a few fleeting moments. Landis' unlikely Tour ride of 2006 was one of the most exhilarating, and ultimately, most disappointing. After riding into the yellow jersey in the Pyrénées, Landis told his team not to chase down the attacking Oscar Pereiro, giving back the Spanish climber nearly 30 minutes in an otherwise unimportant flat transition stage, a tactical move (most called it flawed) unseen in Tour history.

Landis thought he'd save his outgunned Phonak team and climb back into the yellow jersey in the Alps in the final week. Problem was, Landis bonked on the La Toussuire summit finish and lost more than seven minutes, a death sentence in today's tightly controlled peloton. But Landis simply rode off the wheel of the entire peloton on the five-climb stage across the beyond-category Joux-Plane to ride back into contention with a stage victory into Morzine. It was a move both audacious and implausible, something unseen since the days of Eddy Merckx in the 1970s. Two days later, he won back the yellow in the final time trial and rode triumphant into Paris as America's third Tour winner.

Just two days after the Tour ended, Landis tested positive for an unbalanced T/E (testosterone-epitestosterone) ratio. Follow-up tests confirmed the cause was synthetic testosterone. Lawyers tried to punch holes in what they called a botched process, but it wasn't enough to prevent officials from stripping his title (a first in Tour history) and handing out a two-year ban. Landis maintains his innocence.

8. 2003: Tyler Hamilton -- Bayonne stage win
Love him or hate him, Tyler Hamilton earned his place in Tour history with one of the gutsiest performances ever.

Hailed as one of the top challengers for the overall crown, Hamilton hit the deck in a first-stage crash that left him with a fractured collarbone. He packed his bags and was ready to head home when one team doctor said his bone was cracked, but not displaced. It might be possible to ride on.

Hamilton was up for the challenge. Gritting his teeth in pain (he later had 11 teeth recapped), Hamilton rode with his shoulder heavily bandaged and employed little tricks like riding with slightly less pressure in his tires and extra wrapping on his handlebars to help ease the jarring. After getting dropped on an early climb in Stage 16 across the brutal French Basque region, Hamilton attacked alone for more than 80 miles across the Col de Bagargui, one of the steepest, narrowest climbs in the Tour, to claim one of the most daring and unlikely stage victories in Tour history.

7. 1998: Bobby Julich -- On the podium
Following Bobby Julich's encouraging 17th-place finish in his 1997 Tour debut, the tall, lean and willowy rider remained calm throughout the scandalous 1998 Tour that saw the Festina affair blow the lid on organized doping within the sport. Against a sea of tumult that included police raids, rider strikes and a media frenzy, the depleted Tour arrived in Paris (only 96 riders finished as teams were banned or abandoned after becoming caught in the imbroglio). Julich stayed with eventual winner Marco Pantani and runner-up Jan Ullrich in the Pyrénées and survived Pantani's onslaught over the Galibier to finish third, becoming just the second American to reach the Tour podium at that point.

[+] EnlargeLance Armstrong
JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty ImagesLance Armstrong rode through a hayfield during one memorable stage of his 2003 Tour win.

6. 2007: Levi Leipheimer -- Podium and final time-trial victory
Quiet, studious and hardworking, Levi Leipheimer seemed stuck just below the Tour's elite level going into the 2007 Tour. Three times in the top 10, Leipheimer found new wings in his return to the U.S.-based Discovery Channel after racing for European teams from 2002 to '06. The unlikely rise of teammate Alberto Contador, however, meant Leipheimer was once again working for another rider instead of pursuing his own chances.

But when Michael Rasmussen was removed from the Tour just four days before Paris, Leipheimer suddenly found himself not only within reach of the podium, but also an overall victory. The long, rolling 55.5-kilometer course from Cognac to Angoulême delivered one of the Tour's most exciting finales. Starting the day 2:49 behind race leader Contador and 59 seconds behind second-place Cadel Evans, Leipheimer posted a 51-second victory over Evans. Contador hung on to win the Tour, just 23 seconds ahead of Evans.

Leipheimer pulled the double, winning his first career Tour stage and securing his first career Tour podium appearance, 31 seconds behind Contador in third place. In a bitter twist, Leipheimer lost second place thanks to an unusual 10-second time penalty in the Pyrénées for drafting behind a team car to regain contact with the main pack after a heavy fall. Such fines are typically issued when riders are taking pulls going up hills.

5. 2005: Dave Zabriskie -- Wearing yellow
No one thought a Tour rookie from a suburb of Salt Lake City would take down Armstrong in the opening first stage of the Texan's bid to become the first rider to win six Tours. Dave Zabriskie, known more for his odd sense of humor and quirky midrace interviews in the peloton, rode the time trial of his life, taking the stage 2 seconds ahead of Armstrong and claiming the maillot jaune.

Zabriskie's win was no fluke; he had already won a stage in a wild solo breakaway in the previous year's Vuelta a España in what was essentially a 120-kilometer time trial and won another trial at the Giro d'Italia in May. Four stages later, Zabriskie would lose the jersey after crashing with about 1 kilometer to go in a team time trial, crossing the finish banged up, bleeding and in tears. His injuries would later force him to abandon the race.

4. 1986: Davis Phinney -- Stage 3 win
Davis Phinney was the poster child for the new American émigrés making an impact on the European peloton in the 1980s. Fast, handsome and strong, the Colorado-bred sprinter was part of the upstart 7-Eleven team that was the first American team to appear in the race.

The team wasn't expected to do much, but Canadian Alex Stieda became the first North American to wear the yellow jersey after Stage 1. Two days later, Phinney stormed to the first of two career Tour stage victories and put 7-Eleven directly in the spotlight.

He'd win another stage in next year's Tour and take the overall title at the 1988 Coors Classic, but his big build kept him from ever getting over the mountains to contend for the yellow jersey. Phinney owns the record for most American victories with more than 300 during his amateur and professional career that spanned from 1977 to '93. Phinney was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease at age 40. His son, Taylor, won the junior world time-trial championship in 2007 and will represent the United States in the 2008 Olympics.

3. 1992: Andy Hampsten -- Alpe d'Huez
A son of professors in North Dakota, Hampsten was America's best pure climber during his heyday. He rode to fourth in his first Tour and won a stage in his first Giro, raising hopes that he could become an overall contender. While his lean figure helped him in the climbs, he would get battered in the long time trials. He later tried to gain weight and increase his resistance in the critical time trials, but he lost some of his punch in the mountains.

His greatest moment came in the 1992 Tour, when he rode through a sea of fans and 21 switchbacks up cycling's most famous mountain. Hampsten won alone, more than a minute clear of his closest chaser, and later described the victory as "the world championships for climbers." Hampsten would later drop from third to fourth in the final time trial, dooming his best chance for the podium. He retired after the 1996 season and splits the year between Boulder, Colo., where he runs a bike company bearing his name, and Italy, where he lives on an olive and wine farm in Tuscany.

[+] EnlargeGreg LeMond
Getty ImagesGreg LeMond won the second of his three career Tour de France wins in 1989.

2. 2003: Lance Armstrong -- Le Tour
Trying to find the best moment from Armstrong's seven straight Tour wins (not to mention the four he rode preceding cancer) is like trying to pick your favorite Beatle. They're all good. It's just a matter of personal preference. It's hard to beat the drama of Armstrong's emotional stage victory in Limoges in 1995, just days after teammate Fabio Casartelli died in a crash in the Pyrénées. His first victory in 1999 after coming back from cancer ranks up there as one of the most improbable comebacks in sports history.

But for pure drama, tension, raw emotion and one hell of a good ride, the 2003 Tour ranks best. Armstrong entered the Tour on the cusp of matching the five-win mark held by only four riders in Tour history. His veneer showed some chinks on Alpe d'Huez, when Armstrong not only didn't attack (as he normally does in the first important mountain stages), but couldn't respond to attacks. Just a few days later, Armstrong proved he was blessed during the stage into Gap.

Chasing an attacking Alexandre Vinokourov, who had Armstrong's jersey in the crosshairs, Lance and Spanish threat Joseba Beloki were barreling down a narrow descent less than 20 kilometers from Gap. Beloki came into a sweeping left-hander too hot, braked heavily and skidded across sun-baked tar. Beloki "high-sided," crashing over the top of his handlebars rather than sliding out, and smashed his hip, elbow and shoulder. Beloki, a three-time podium finisher, never recovered from that crash. Armstrong, meanwhile, would cross a concrete culvert and steer into a recently cut hayfield as gravity pulled him off the sweeping left turn. Incredibly, Armstrong kept his balance across the sloping hillside. Once he reached a ditch, Armstrong vaulted back onto the road, remounted his bike and latched onto a chasing group of leaders who were sweeping past him.

Things were just warming up. Later, Jan Ullrich would take nearly two minutes out of a depleted Armstrong and then attack him the next day to pull within 15 seconds of the yellow jersey. Armstrong would later crash while climbing Luz-Ardiden after his handlebars got caught on a fan's souvenir kit. The gentlemanly Ullrich waited for Armstrong instead of attacking his fallen rival; Armstrong then attacked to win the stage by 40 seconds. Ullrich would eventually crash in the final time trial and Armstrong would win his record fifth Tour by 61 seconds, the narrowest margin of his victories up to that point.

1. 1989: Greg LeMond -- Tour's narrowest winning margin
The blond-haired, California-bred LeMond introduced an entire nation to the color and excitement that is the Tour. In 1986, he became the first American to win the Tour with a passionate, gutsy performance that's still revered in France today. LeMond probably could have won five Tours had he not been shot by his brother-in-law while turkey hunting in 1987.

After struggling to come back, LeMond entered the 1989 Tour as an underdog. Two-time winner Laurent Fignon, back after a string of crashes and poor performances, was the heavy favorite. LeMond performed better than expected, but Fignon beat him back and entered a rare, final-day time trial (Tour organizers haven't repeated it since) with a 50-second lead over LeMond. The gap was expected to hold over the 24-kilometer course from Versailles to Paris.

But LeMond, always keen to try new technological advances, pulled out aero bars, already popular on the triathlon circuit, and wore an aero-shaped helmet to cut through the wind faster. They were two innovations unseen on the European peloton. Fignon rode a traditional setup and confidently started last, as is customary for the leader. What was supposed to be a victory coronation soon turned into disaster, at least for Fignon. By the first splits, LeMond had already cut into Fignon's lead, slicing through the warm French air and blazing to the stage win.

Watching at the finish line, LeMond jumped in joy and disbelief when he realized he had not only won the stage, but claimed overall victory. Some say Fignon's trademark ponytail flipping behind his head actually caused so much turbulence, it might have cost him the Tour. The 8-second win differential still remains the smallest margin of victory in Tour history. LeMond's average speed of 54.545 kph also remains the fastest time trial pace in the event.

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