- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 22, 2006

MACON, France — After a leisurely ride yesterday, one of the most dramatic Tour de France editions in years reaches a crucial stage today — the individual time trial.

The question on everyone’s lips: Can American Floyd Landis overcome a 30-second deficit and wrest the yellow jersey away from race leader Oscar Pereiro of Spain?

The two men have traded the yellow jersey back and forth since Saturday. Now, the time trial likely will determine who will wear the maillot jaune when it counts — tomorrow in Paris.

“I feel pretty good about my chances,” Landis said after yesterday’s mostly flat stage, in which the leading contenders rode together, trying to recharge after three agonizing days in the Alps.

“I’m optimistic.”

Today’s race against the clock is a 35.4-mile ride that snakes from Le Creusot to Montceau-les-Mines. It shouldn’t take riders, who will leave one by one in reverse order of the standings, much more than an hour to complete.

The last three riders to go will be Landis, second-place Spaniard Carlos Sastre, who’s 12 seconds back, and Pereiro.

The course is about the same length as the Stage 7 time trial, though a little more hilly. Landis finished second in that stage, 1:10 faster than Sastre and 1:40 ahead of Pereiro.

But extrapolations mean little in this year’s Tour, which has featured seven different riders in yellow — one short of the record.

Unpredictable finishes are replacing Lance Armstrong’s era of domination.

Whereas Armstrong meticulously chipped away at his rivals, 30-year-old Landis has shown a flair for the dramatic — nearly cracking one day, then coming back with a once-in-a-lifetime ride.

He became a fan favorite Thursday, winning the final Alpine stage to slash his 8:08 deficit to Pereiro to 30 seconds, putting him back in contention.

Making it even more incredible is that Landis is riding with an arthritic hip, an injury from a 2003 crash that he hopes to correct with surgery this fall.

“The other day, when I saw Floyd [struggle] … I can say in my heart that I wasn’t happy,” said Pereiro, a former Phonak teammate who calls Landis a friend. “Now I am.”

“But it’s clear that it’s going to be harder for me to win the Tour,” he said, acknowledging that Landis is typically stronger in time trials.

“I’m going to push the limit.”

Yesterday, he and the other top riders took it easy as Italy’s Matteo Tosatto won the 18th stage, outsprinting two other breakaway riders at the end of the 122.4-mile ride from Morzine to Macon.

The Quickstep rider clocked 4 hours, 16 minutes, 15 seconds. Pereiro, Landis and Sastre cruised in eight minutes later.

Pereiro, of the Illes Balears squad, holds a thin 12-second lead over Team CSC rider and fellow Spaniard Sastre.

The doping probe — and the absence of now-retired Armstrong — have played havoc with fans’ attempts to figure out the favorites for the title. Going into the Alps on Tuesday, several cyclists held out hope for the yellow jersey.

Thursday’s final Alpine stage has narrowed the focus to Pereiro, Sastre and Landis.

Even so, T-Mobile rider Andreas Kloeden of Germany, the 2004 Tour runner-up and a strong time-trial rider, has an outside shot at the title, 2:29 behind Pereiro.

And for the first time in years, tomorrow’s finish on the Champs-Elysees in Paris could be a venue for last-ditch jockeying.

“It’s not over yet,” Landis said.

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