- The Washington Times - Monday, July 24, 2006

PARIS — The craziest Tour de France in memory ended yesterday the same way as the past seven, with an American wearing the yellow jersey. Only this time, it was a Landis instead of a Lance.

After stunning feats of willpower and woeful cracks of concentration, Floyd Landis’ arthritic hip held up, and he held on for the ceremonial ride over the cobblestones of the Champs-Elysees.

“I kept fighting, never stopped believing,” Landis said after leaving the winner’s podium with his daughter, Ryan.

Plenty of race fans surely had their doubts, especially after his wild ride in the Alps last week.

Landis cracked in the final climb of Stage 16 on Wednesday, giving up a lead and falling 8 minutes, 8 seconds behind Spain’s Oscar Pereiro. He managed a stunning rebound the next day in the last mountain stage, pedaling like a madman and closing the gap to 30 seconds.

So astounding was the turnaround that race director Jean-Marie Leblanc, who has overseen this event for 18 years, called it “the best performance in the modern history of the Tour.”

The comeback was read by many as a master stroke, instantly enshrining Landis in cycling’s pantheon alongside greats such as five-time Tour champion Eddy Merckx of Belgium for his show of both human frailty and superhuman courage in the span of 24 hours.

The 30 seconds put Landis in position to win by outpacing Pereiro in the final time trial Saturday.

And by the time he was done, the race was reborn, injected with the drama and swashbuckling flavor of years past, something that was lacking for nearly all of Lance Armstrong’s seven victories.

Not that the two men won’t be inextricably linked.

A former mountain biker, Landis toiled for three years as a U.S. Postal Service team support rider for Armstrong, then broke out on his own to lead the Swiss Phonak squad.

Now, Armstrong wants him back with the Discovery Channel team, of which he is part owner.

“We’ve always been interested in Floyd. He’s a good rider,” Armstrong said. “We would take Floyd back. We have pursued him for some time now.”

Landis hopes to ride again, but that depends on how he fares after hip-replacement surgery this fall to ease pain in the arthritic joint still aching from a 2003 crash during a training ride.

Landis became the third American to win the world’s most prestigious bike race, behind Armstrong and three-time winner Greg LeMond. Americans have won 10 of the past 18 races.

Landis’ 57-second margin over Pereiro, who finished second, was the sixth-smallest in Tour history, and the tightest since LeMond’s record-low 8 seconds over Frenchman Laurent Fignon in 1989.

Germany’s Andreas Kloeden finished third, 1:29 behind Landis. Norway’s Thor Hushovd won the final stage of the three-week race, a 96-mile route from Sceaux-Antony to Paris.

Landis learned discipline at an early age.

His devout Mennonite parents, Paul and Arlene, shunned organized sports in favor of hard work. That, in turn, was passed on to their six children. Landis didn’t have much idle time, helping his father at the car wash, fixing washing machines and mowing the lawn.

Though the family had a car and electricity in the house, they adhered to a simple life with no television or radio.

Landis wanted something more, and biking provided the escape.

“Riding my bike wasn’t the problem, it was just that I got obsessed with it,” Landis recalled during an interview with the Associated Press last week. “I don’t blame them for thinking that it was absurd that you want to ride your bike that much.”

As Landis crossed the finish line yesterday, his parents were riding their own bicycles home from church in Farmersville, Pa., in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country.

They were so confident their son would win that they didn’t have to choose between going to church and watching the race on TV at a neighbor’s house.

“I’m glad we didn’t have to make that choice. Church is very important to us,” Arlene Landis said. “We felt in our hearts he was going to win. He is not one to take second place.”

At Farmersville’s only intersection, neighbors scrawled on a sign: “Floyd Landis, World Winner of Tour de France 2006, -10:00 to +.59, USA” — a reference to the huge time deficit Landis overcame to win.

Well-wishers also flocked to the Landis home, a white farmhouse bordered by cornfields. The house was festooned with green and yellow balloons, the colors of Landis’ Phonak team. On the front lawn, signs showcased the divergence of cultures: “To God be the glory” and “Floyd’s the man.”

The attention “just really humbled me,” said Arlene Landis, who walked to a neighbor’s house each morning to watch the Tour. “I think this is terrific.”

The parents said they felt “joy” at his victory and hoped he will use it to glorify God.

“People in any profession who do their best are often lifted up as examples, and I want his life to be a life of integrity and an example to young people,” Mrs. Landis said.

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