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Meet the New Boss

Posted by MDugard on Jul 19, 2006 6:23:05 AM

Today marked the first time in this year's Tour that a possible winner showed himself. Floyd Landis didn't win today's stage (that would be Frank Schleck of Team CSC, who had to be talked out of quitting cycling a few years ago), but he owned it. Last year I wrote that Landis was still a few years away from winning his first Tour de France. I don't think that's the case anymore. Clearly, Landis is capable of winning now. Floyd Landis rode, in the words of none less than Lance Armstrong, a very smart race today. Controlling the tempo and pace, knowing when to let lesser riders break away and whom to watch closely, Landis showed that he's in control of this bike race. "I think of bike racing as a tactical sport," said Landis. "Today I rode tactically."That he did. Riding most of the day in a group that included top contenders Andreas Kloden, Cadel Evans, and Denis Menchov, Landis rarely appeared to be working very hard at all. Even during the final, brutal ascent of the L'Alpe D'Huez, Landis controlled the rhythm of the race. Part of that comes with being the favorite -- the other riders are all watching him now, checking to see what he's up to -- part comes from Landis's ability to counter even the slightest attack, and then there was the simple fact that he never seemed to be working hard. But that was all part of the game. "I'm a very good actor," Landis said, making it clear that he was suffering. But while the Russian Menchov was gasping for air, mouth open wide like a bass, looking very much like the Cold War Boris Badinov caricature of what a Russian should look like, Landis made small talk with other riders now and then. His face was impassive and he didn't seem to be breathing hard. All in all, it was a great performance. That performance continued after the stage. Under a threatening gray sky I wandered through the finish area, where individual riders were being tended to by their team doctors and athletic trainers. The scene resembled a trauma unit: Kloden was folded over his bike like a piece of limp origami, barely able to breathe; Oscar Pereiro, who had lost the yellow jersey to Landis by just ten seconds, was drenched in sweat and road grime, barely able to stand; and, Menchov, who lost another minute to Landis in the overall rankings, was thoroughly destroyed. After most stages, the riders simply keep pedaling their bikes back to the team car, but these guys weren't going to be pedaling anywhere. Hard to believe they have to race 112 miles and climb four major mountain roads in the morning. Meanwhile, Landis was safely out of the public eye, sequestered behind the inflatable gray amphitheater where the yellow jersey is awarded each day. His wife, Amber, in a bold move, slipped past security to be with him. She was giddy with delight at his performance (and something of a pro in busting a move past the Tour's vaunted security detail). And while Landis had put on a brave face after the stage, giving his bike to a Phonak acolyte and joking with the crowds, he was a different man once he knew the competition couldn't see him. Landis sat on the steps leading up into the podium's back entrance. At first he sat with his head in his hands, and then he just leaned forward and rested his upper body against his knees. Landis looked exhausted, like he could have fallen to sleep in an instant. The mood around here is that the race is Landis's to lose. But so many things can go wrong. For starters, he had a terrible cough during the post-race press conference. Though Landis was clear-eyed and articulate, he had to stop several times to hack. Whether there's something in his lungs or not, only Landis knows, but that's the sort of thing that can steal energy and competitive efficiency. You'd better believe that other teams will try to capitalize on that soon. They know that Landis's legs are cooked after today, and will send lesser riders out to attack, hoping to find a ***** in Landis's armor. I left the Landis press conference at about six, then wandered down through the finish corridor on my way back to the pressroom. The crowds were all headed for the restaurants and bars, and with thunderstorms threatening, everyone seemed to be in a hurry to find shelter. Plus, it had been a long and exciting day of racing. We were all pretty wrung out. Just then I bumped into Austin, who told me Lance Armstrong was holding a press conference in a hotel near the press center. It was to be a small affair, invitation only, and we were on the list. How could I not go?But all the while, waiting in a small upstairs room for Lance to appear, I kept wondering why he had come to France. The room was warm, and the handful of TV lights combined with the various bodies to make the room a little claustrophobic. If you happen to watch the interview tonight on OLN, you may also notice a picture of a winter landscape behind Lance's head. However, that was not the original painting/poster behind Lance's head. The original picture behind Lance was a cute painting of three squirrels next to a pine tree. Apparently it portrayed a bad image, so the squirrels were removed. I digress. Even though Lance is just a year removed from his latest Tour victory, anytime a retired athlete returns to the scene of his glory it's a little discomfiting. Think of Dennis Quaid in "Everyone's All-American." Anyway, so I asked Lance why he had come back. Just put it out there. I think he knew that someone was going to ask that question, because his answer was pretty good. He said that he came back because he's part-owner of the team, and that he's a fan of cycling and the Tour de France. Lance also said that he doesn't regret in the slightest that remark he made about the French soccer team. And he thought that the French tabloid headline "Welcome to France, *******" that ran in Monday's Paris papers was pretty funny. I have to say that it was good to see Lance here, because he was solid and relaxed and a lot different than during the tension of the 2005 Tour. He's bulked up a bit, because he's added swimming and kayaking, so don't expect him to make a miracle comeback. He looked -- and I know this isn't the best term, but it was the first thought that came into my mind -- like a grown-up. So now it's absolutely pouring here on top of the mountain. Wind is blowing the rain sideways and there's a fair amount of thunder and lightning. I wandered over here to the pressroom from the hotel more than eight hours ago, when the sun was shining. Having neglected to bring a raincoat or jacket of any kind, please know that I will be running at full speed the mile from here back to the Club Med. OK. Tomorrow. Floyd's in yellow, with a two-minute lead over his top rivals (Menchov, Evans, Kloden). As difficult as today was, tomorrow will see even more climbing and yet another mountaintop finish. Bourg D'Oisans, the start site, is here at the base of L'Alpe D'Huez, so basically everyone who watched the stage today has relocated to a spot down there. I would imagine it's a little bit boisterous at the moment. For those of you who've written to ask, yes, I finally found a place that sold running socks. Talk to you tomorrow.

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