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Chasing Floyd

Posted by MDugard Jul 21, 2006

"Dude," Austin said an hour after Floyd Landis won today, "we witnessed something historic."That we did. Just when it seemed Phil Michelson had a latched onto a lifelong partner in sporting infamy, Floyd Landis willed himself through a divine afternoon of redemption. Instead of being remembered for blowing the Tour yesterday on La Toussuire, Landis will now go down in history for today's epic comeback. Michelson will win the British Open if there's any justice in this world, and find a little redemption for himself just to even things up. Landis limited himself to one beer last night, deciding that he hadn't battled for three weeks to give up on the Tour de France after one very bad (historically awful, actually, what the French press were calling the worst collapse in Tour history) day in the saddle. "He told me he was going to go out in the morning and do something big," Amber Landis told me as she watched her husband begin the final descent of the Col de Joux-Plane. "He doesn't say that very often, but when he does, he always goes out and does it."That he did. Per his style, Landis didn't explode away from the peloton in the manner of most breakaways. Rather, he gradually left a yellow jersey group containing Oscar Pereiro, Cadel Evans, Andreas Kloden, and Denis Menchov. He tiptoes away like a cat burglar, as if afraid of drawing attention to himself. Landis then began an 80-mile individual time trial, constantly dousing himself with water on this humid mountain afternoon, at one point pulling so far ahead that he was the virtual leader of the race. Just before Landis crested the Joux-Plane I sprinted across the valley separating the press room from the finish area. Then it was up a series of railroad ties dug into the earth to serve as steps, then a protracted juke through the thick crowds filling the brasseries and pressed against the barricades, and then into the Tour's backstage area via the security gates (armed by pistol packing gendarmes today). A large crowd of American press was gathered at the OLN booth -- Austin, Bonnie DeSimone from the Boston Globe, the Houston guy with the curly hair -- where we all watched the Liggett and Sherwen feed on a big screen monitor. Amber Landis was there, too, watching the race nervously. Now and again she would get a phone call from back home in California as family and friends tuned in to the race at dawn and learned that against all odds, Floyd Landis was making a race of the thing. Two things: To quote Vin Scully, Landis making up those eight minutes was the biggest comeback since Lazarus. And, with all due respect to Mickael Rasmussen, his breakaway win yesterday -- memorable and courageous as it was -- just got trumped. Onward. Amber explained that she doesn't usually watch Floyd as he hazards the descents on mountain stages, fearing for his life. But today of all days, as he plunged down the mountain without regard for life or limb, she watched every last minute. She cringed when he almost went off the road (a la Christophe Moreau) on the steep drop into Morzine, then distracted herself by looking away from the screen to fill Austin and I in on Floyd's mood after La Toussuire. Turns out he was down in the dumps, but otherwise fine. Amber, a small unpretentious woman fond of joking that she and FLoyd are "ghetto" (not at all your typical cycling wife, by the way) was the one sobbing and mumbling "oh, baby" as he tried to console her. "It was sad to see him have such a hard day," she said later, adding that after awhile she had just stopped watching the La Toussuire debacle long before he plodded across the finish line. Ah... but when Floyd crossed the line today, fist thrust into the air and a scowl on his face, Amber Landis jumped up and down. "Oh, baby!" she screamed, fighting back tears. Only this time they were tears of joy. And, if I am to be honest here, I was a little misty, too.  Before we get to the Landis press conference, let me describe the finish area. Riders crossed the line ashen faced, and soon entered a scrum of photographers and TV cameras. The final straightaway was as festive and crowded as Broadway during the Macy's Parade, lined with fans banging thundersticks and smacking their palms against the metal barricade, Bislett-like. Official red Skoda's followed the grupettos of cyclists across the line, blowing their horns to part a path through the media. The race announcer's voice boomed over the public address system, naming each rider as they passed. And all about, I could hear people marveling at the stage they just witnessed. In French, Spanish, German, Italian, Chinese, and English, the Tour press and team officials chattered in edgy disbelief. Making up an eight-minute deficit with just three days left in the Tour is unprecedented. Landis was clearly enraged when all those bodies pressed up against him (during yesterday's finish, an overly aggressive camera man managed to smash a large camera body into the side of a child's head while trying to snap a photo of Floyd. Clearly, more restraint was in order), and barked "guys!" to buy a little space. Carlos Sastre pedaled through the mix, chaperoned by the CSC team staff. There was spittle creasing the faces of some riders, and many grasped for water bottles as if that was all they'd been thinking about for the previous hour. I squeezed into the press interview trailer. The air conditioning felt nice after an hour in the mountain humidity and I needed to make a few notes, so I found a seat while the podium ceremony was still underway. Two odd things happened: First, there was no one else in the interview room when I found my seat. Second, the rest of the media were still outside, waiting for Floyd, when the press conference began. So it was basically just Floyd and I having a little chat, which was nice for the first two minutes, by which time everyone came thundering in, and that bit of casual connection was lost. Still, it felt cool to be there having that talk on such an epic day. Anyway, Landis let it be known that he felt horrible about letting his team down yesterday. This despite the fact that every Tour watcher has pointed to his team's mediocrity as the reason for Landis's struggles. "They fought and they believed in me," said Landis. "I owed it to them to be a leader."More Landis: "What I did yesterday left a few people stunned. It was a disaster. But I knew that today, after all those mountain stages, other teams would be tired and disorganized. Chasing me down wouldn't be so easy."On the subject of his next tactical gambit, Landis said simply: "If I told you guys, it wouldn't be any fun."So tomorrow the stage is a little on the downhill side, a 120-mile run from Morzine down into Macon. Teams might try to take a little bite out of Landis, hoping to gain a few seconds on him before Saturday's time trial. With Pereiro (with whom Landis ate breakfast this morning, just the two of them) 30 seconds in front and Sastre 18 seconds up, Landis is close enough that a powerful time-trial Saturday will likely win him the Tour. But ... if the race is still close after Saturday, the final stage into Paris on Sunday will not be the usual parade lap we've been accustomed to for so long. Teams will be fighting and attacking up and down the Champs Elysees. Wow. Can you imagine?This race sure isn't over yet. Not by a long shot. Finally, and for what it's worth, I think there's some merit to arguments that Landis didn't eat enough yesterday. Today he made it a point to eat an energy bar and drink a bottle of water at the starting line, then reached over to the team car for extra food throughout the day. Talk to you tomorrow.

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