Tour de France Stage 17

“Ride like you stole something”

Before I tell you about today’s stage, let me tell you about a similar stage several years ago. Back then, Landis was on Lance Armstrong’s team. Lance was already in yellow, and Landis had pulled him ahead of all his rivals at the top of the second last climb of the day. Armstrong only needed to finish with his rivals, he didn’t need to make any time on them. So he turned to Landis and said “Do you want to win the stage today?” When Landis said yes, Armstrong said “Ride like you stole something.” The idea was that Armstrong would hang back with the hopes that any approaching rivals would be content catching him and not need to catch up to Landis. Unfortunately Ullrich and Kloden caught up to Armstrong and Landis, so Landis didn’t get his stage win. (The story of how Armstrong won the stage is worth a blog entry on its own – it was a pretty amazing race.)

Today, Landis rode like he stole something. It was another brutal stage, with lots of vicious climbs and heat. He attacked on the first climb, and a few tried to stay with him but failed, and the rest just let him go. I don’t know if they were unable, of it they just thought he’d crack today like he did yesterday, but it was a big mistake. He caught and passed the 11 man break-away, and while one T-Mobile rider in the break just sat on his wheel for the next couple of climbs. He looked so calm and cool and determined all day, while his rivals looked under terrible pressure.

Because he is the team leader and on a lone break-away, he had the team car right up beside him, so every time he needed a water bottle he just gave a jaunty little wave, and up would come the car. And boy did he go through a lot of water bottles. He rode most of the time with a bottle in his hand, and every time he called up the team car he’d take one, put it in the bottle cage, take another and empty it over his head, and take another and drink most of it. He was constantly eating and drinking – he knew that the main reason he bonked yesterday was a lack of food and drink, and he wasn’t going to repeat that mistake.

At the end, he ended up 30 seconds off the lead in GC in third overall, with Periero still in yellow and Sastre in second at 12 seconds back. It’s still anybody’s game, but I think Landis has to be the overwhelming favourite based on his time trialing ability.

One of the things I find most impressive about Landis is that he’s amazingly concentrated. As an orienteer, I participated in many two or five day events. And one thing I struggled with was the fact that a bad day could throw me off for subsequent days. But look at Landis. On the prologue, he got a flat tire riding up to the start house. He ended up missing his start by 7 or 8 seconds, but it didn’t faze him and he ended up only about 9 seconds down. Then on the first individual time trial, he was told a few minutes before the start that the position he uses, the position that he’d done all his time trial training in, had been banned by the UCI. So he had to change the position with no time to take a test ride to adjust it – and then, probably because of the adjustment of his bars, he broke his handle bars early in the race, and needed a bike change. And in spite of that, he finished second to a world time trail champion, Sergei Gonchar. And now after a performance yesterday that would cause a lesser man to quit, he came storming back and is now in an amazing position.

Overall, I think one of the factors that made this race so crazy is that the riders are too used to the Armstrong era. Traditionally, the team of the rider in the yellow jersey controls the peleton, riding the tempo to bring in the gap to the break-away groups according to the strategy of the day. But twice this year, the riders have sat back expecting the yellow jersey’s team to bring in an break-away and the team was too weak to do it. First it was the 30 minute break-away that put Periero in yellow – Phonak should have chased that gap down to 10 or 15 minutes, but they were too weak. And today it was Floyd Landis breaking away, while the GC men were sitting there waiting for Caisse d’Epargne-Illes Balears to start reeling them in, but they didn’t have the power. By the time CSC and T-Mobile realized that they needed to step up, it was too late.

Tomorrow is a pretty flat transition stage. Early in the race this would be a sprinter’s stage, but I think everybody is pretty tired and Robbie McEwan is pretty secure in green. And the GC contenders aren’t going to have any opportunity to make time on each other. So look for a small break-away group, hopefully controlled by the major teams, while the favourites all rest up for the crucial time trial. That one is going to be an exciting time. Too bad I’ll be in Oshkosh.