- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 20, 2006

LA TOUSSUIRE, France — In a single torturous Alpine stage, Floyd Landis’ lead and chance for a Tour de France victory slipped away almost pitifully yesterday as rider after rider passed him on the punishing final climb.

Abandoned by his teammates, Landis fell apart, dropped to 11th place and lost the leader’s yellow jersey a day after regaining it in a spectacular ride up the famed L’Alpe d’Huez.

Landis, now 8 minutes, 8 seconds behind new race leader Oscar Pereiro, was unable to attack, let alone intimidate his rivals — which was Lance Armstrong’s calling card en route to a record seven Tour wins.

“I suffered from the beginning, and I tried to hide it,” Landis said. “I don’t expect to win the Tour at this point. It’s not easy to get back eight minutes.”

With about eight miles to go up La Toussuire, Spain’s Carlos Sastre burst out of a small group of would-be favorites that included Landis, and Pereiro and several other contenders gave chase.

The American simply couldn’t keep up, losing the 10-second lead he started the day with.

“Sometimes you don’t feel well, and sometimes it’s on the wrong day. What can I say?” asked Landis, who is riding with an injured hip.

And with that, Landis went in search of something cold and soothing.

“Drink some beer … that’s all I’m thinking about now,” he said, adding: “I would be lying if I said I was not disappointed.”

So it goes in this topsy-turvy Tour, the first in the post-Armstrong era.

It has been strange from the get-go.

On the eve of the July 1 start, nine riders — including prerace favorites Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso — were sent home after they were implicated in a Spanish doping investigation.

Ever since, the race has lacked a clear leader. Seven riders have worn yellow — one fewer than the record. Landis and Pereiro each have led twice since the American first won the leader’s jersey last Thursday.

The first time, Phonak took a gamble: It allowed Pereiro to take the yellow jersey Saturday by not laying chase as the Spaniard broke away and, in the end, erased a deficit of nearly 30 minutes against Landis.

Landis regained the lead Tuesday by shadowing Germany’s Andreas Kloeden, runner-up to Armstrong in 2004, to make sure he didn’t gain time on him.

When Pereiro regained the lead yesterday, Phonak’s original plan appeared to have backfired, and the team looked as if it badly underestimated one of its riders.

“It was difficult to imagine that things would turn out like this,” Pereiro said. “Floyd Landis seemed untouchable, but like everybody, he wasn’t immune to collapse.

“Something in me said that today could be my day,” he added.

Denmark’s Mickael Rasmussen won the 113-mile stage through the Col du Galibier and the Col de la Croix-de-Fer — two climbs so hard they defy classification in cycling’s ranking system — before the uphill finish.

Kloeden, who finished fifth, was escorted by two T-Mobile teammates up that climb. Landis finished alongside Phonak teammate Axel Merckx but only because the American had dropped so far behind.

All along, Landis hasn’t been in tip-top shape.

He surprised many Tour fans last week by announcing he was riding with increasing pain in a right hip that had been damaged in a 2003 crash and planned to have surgery on it this fall. It raised the prospect that Landis — like cancer survivor Armstrong — could overcome adversity and win cycling’s premier race.

Landis insisted the hip wasn’t a factor yesterday.

Pereiro, meantime, has been one of the biggest surprises at the Tour. Even though he was a top-10 finisher the last two years, he had come in primarily as a support rider for Illes Balears teammate Alejandro Valverde, who crashed out in Stage 3 with a broken right collarbone.

Overall, Pereiro holds a 1:50 lead over Sastre in second and 2:29 ahead of Kloeden in third.

Like Pereiro, the other two are also former support riders for their fallen team leaders: Kloeden for Ullrich at T-Mobile, Sastre for Basso at Team CSC.

Landis says he thinks all three have a shot at the title with a final Alpine stage today and a penultimate individual time trial Saturday.

The race ends Sunday on the Champs-Elysees in Paris.

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