Okay, so, an American, Floyd Landis, won the Tour de fwance again. Whoopee. Big deal.
Don't get me wrong. I am ecstatic that an American won the Tour de fwance, but, after delving into the race a little bit, Floyd winning the Tour isn't nearly as impressive as HOW he won the race. I've read several commentaries, from analysts, cyclists, and competitors, and all of them have said that Floyd's win was the stuff of legends, a finish that will be talked about in cycling for decades. Cyclists will tell their children "I was there when Floyd won the Tour." Team owners will tell their young upstarts "You didn't see Floyd win the Tour. Shut up and listen." Fans will say, decades later "That was a good race by X, but, it has nothing on Floyd's win at the Tour".
Am I exaggerating? I don't think so. Way back when, when I was a lot younger and in a lot better shape, I used to cycle as training for my real passion, running. So, I know a little bit about how bicycle races are run and won. So, now, I'm going to try to tell you why Floyd Landis' win at the 2006 Tour de fwance is the stuff of legends. I'll be guessing about some of the things, and some of the details won't be correct, but...I assure you, the nature and spirit of his victory is what I'm after, and what I'm trying to convey, not the petty details.
This year's Tour was a wide open mess from the get-go. Lance Armstrong, who had owned the Tour for the past 7 years, was now retired. Several of the other favorites (past winners and perenial 2nd- and 3rd- placers) had been disqualified for various reasons. (2 for connection to a blood doping clinic, and another for not having enough members on the team) I *think a 5th favorite was out due to injury or retirement...which meant, at the start of the Tour, all 5 of the top 5 finishers from 2005 weren't competing this year. (that, I know for sure) So, the talking heads turned to trying to figure out who would win this year's Tour, with all of the favorites out.
America's best hope was George Hincapie, the only rider to race with US Postal/Team Discovery each year that Lance Armstrong won. Now that Lance was gone, it was now George's team, and the team would now labor to get George into the Yellow Jersey, instead of Lance. And Lance had won the previous 7 Tours by having an incredible team, with incredible support, and riders (like George) who were willing to sacrifice THEIR chances for the Yellow, so that Lance could get it.
Floyd Landis, on the other hand, would have been THE favorite to win...if he had stayed with Team Discovery (a couple of years ago, US Postal withdrew its sponsorship of the team, and The Discovery Channel stepped in..hence, the name change). But, Floyd clashed with Lance Armstrong repeatedly (actually...a very common occurence. There's a reason why only ONE rider stayed with Lance all 7 years), so, he left for other pastures...more specifically, to Team Phonak. Team Phonak seemed to offer everything Floyd needed in a team, except one thing...an actual competitive team. Phonak was good enough to qualify for the Tour, and was good enough to finish it. But, they weren't the best riders, and not even close to the quality of rider that Team Discovery had. So, Floyd was, at best, a long shot to win, if he could find a way to overcome the obstacle his team presented.
Now, most people don't realize that the Tour de fwance (and most Tours, for that matter) is actually a team event, not an individual event. You can't even sign up for the Tour with a 6 person team. No Lone Rangering allowed. So, Floyd was going to have to win the Tour in spite of his team, not because of it.
Early on in the Tour, George Hincapie had what can only be charitably described as "a melt down". He pooped out. He couldn't hold the Yellow Jersey. He got tired. As a result, he fell back in the standing several minutes, and there wasn't any real way he could make that time up. So, America's hopes really rested on Floyd Landis of the "other weak teams are calling them weak" Team Phonak.
For the first 10 or so stages, Floyd was in striking distance. He and his team were positioning themselves to be in striking distance of the Yellow Jersey at the end stages. Around Stage 12, Floyd got to put on the Yellow Jersey.
Stage 13, Phonak decided to gamble, and give up the Jersey to another rider. Why? To save strength. The Tour is almost a pure endurance event, not really a speed event. It's not about who goes the fastest (sprinters rarely win the Tour), but, more about who can go the fastest the longest. So, sometimes, a team will decide to NOT win a stage, so they can win later stages. That's what Phonak decided to do.
I'll take a quick moment here to describe how team-mates can be used...and abused...in the Tour. Since many time bonuses are available for how well the team does, sometimes, the leader of the team will have another team member go balls-out, to get the other teams to try and catch him. This is sacrificing one team member to get the rest of the team to win. The team member who goes balls-out on Monday won't be worth a shit on Tuesday. Too tired. But, in order to tire the other teams out, you sacrifice the one teammate to get the rest of the team ahead. Now, other teams know you're going to do that, so, they have to decide if they're going to let you get away with that. Usually, they don't, so, they'll sacrifice one of THEIR teammates to tire your teammate out. (Most people don't know that drafting actually SLOWS the lead person down, while speeding the trailing person UP) Now, you know they're going to do that, so, you send another teammate up to "protect" your first teammate, by switching with your sacrificed teammate on and off, to give him a rest. Confusing? Not really, once you start doing it. But, the Tour is a LOT more complicated than just who can ride the fastest. You should also start to see where having other good riders on your team is essential. If none of your teammates are a threat for a true breakaway, why would anyone bother trying to impede them?
So, for Stage 13, Phonak yeilded the Yellow Jersey up, with the plan of taking it back on a later stage, and holding on to it until the ride into Paris. Floyd got criticized for this, by other competitors, many of whom were his friends. You see, it's bad form to not protect the Yellow Jersey. It's a sign of disrespect FOR THE JERSEY to take it one day, and plan on giving it up the next. It's like winning the Super Bowl, and announcing you have no plans to even TRY to go to the playoffs the next year. You won it, you protect it. But, everyone understood what Floyd was doing, they just weren't sure they were going to help him do it. (other teams, out of contention, have been known to choose sides in races between the top 2 teams. Just like any other large mob of people)
Floyd took back the Yellow in Stage 14, and now, his plan was to hold onto it for the rest of the Tour.
There was one small problem, though. Stage 16. A mountain stage.
Floyd Landis had a meltdown. He tired out. He went from being almost 60 seconds ahead, to being 8 minutes, 8 seconds BEHIND. He went from 1st to 11th, in one stage. His hopes of the Yellow Jersey were, barring a miracle, gone. He needed AT LEAST five of the top 10 racers to crash, or drop out, or SOMETHING! He needed to gain time he couldn't gain, and he needed riders to drop out who had entire teams protecting them. 8 minutes with 5 stages to go was impossible. Couldn't be done. George Hincapie had his dreams of Yellow in Paris dashed when he fell 8 minutes behind with 10 stages left! It takes a miracle to gain 8 minutes over the ENTIRE Tour, much less with 3 stages and the Ride into Paris left. (The final stage is more of a formality than a race. You can't win the Tour on the Ride, but, you can lose it, if you crash. Which is why your team sticks to you like white on rice, to make sure no one crashes into you)
Floyd had other plans, though. Sometime during the night, in a strategy session, he and Team Phonak realized they had only one strategy: sheer, brute force. The only hope that Floyd had of regaining the Yellow Jersey was to do an all-out solo breakaway on Stage 17. No teammates to help, and only his body to do the work, the same body that had given out on him the Stage before. No help, no assistance, no tactics. Just. Ride. He had to go fast enough to discourage any other riders from trying to keep up with him, and he had to make sure he kept going. He wasn't going to have anyone to give him a rest by drafting, and he wasn't going to be able to look over his shoulder, because another rider might tell him the pack (the peleton
in bicycle-speak) was just behind him, and he had failed.
So, the next morning, he woke up early, and rode the 65 mile course by himself, to get a feel for it. (that's normal. ALL the champions do it, or, so I've read from other cyclists) By the time he was finished with his run-through, the rumor was already floating around about his plans. Other competitors, many of them friends of his, tried to talk him out of it. You just CAN'T do that. It's not done! Sure, he may have been able to get back into striking distance of the Yellow, but, he was exhausted already from Stage 16, and he would still have 3 more stages to go! Solo breakaways don't work for winning the Tour. They just don't.
Floyd wouldn't listen, though. He told his freiends to drink a Coke, because he was going to breakaway from the pack as early as possilbe, and they were free to try and keep up with him, if they wanted to.
You don't run a 65 mile race ahead of the pack that late in the Tour. You just CAN'T! You're exhausted already, and you'll tire yourself out too much for the remaining stages to win.
Floyd did, though. At the end of Stage 17, Floyd Landis was 30 seconds behind the leader. 7 minutes, and 30 some seconds gained. In one stage. After having one of the worst late-stage collapses in Tour history.
Oh, sure, Greg LeMond overcame just as big of a deficit during one of his victories, but, Greg used his team to do it. Greg used tactics, and strategy, and sacrificed a team-mate or two to do it.
Floyd did it "with the pedal". No tactics, no strategy. Just sheer, brute force, and pure heart.
Some of you may have heard that Floyd had a bad hip, or an arthritic hip. No, it was worse than that. He has avascular necrosis in his hip, a condition that caused the cartilage in his hip to detoriorate, because of lack of blood flow. It was caused by a training crash he had THREE YEARS AGO! His hip has been bone-on-bone for quite some time, now. WALKING is painful for him! SITTING is painful for him. And yet, on one day in fwance, he ignored the pain to launch one of the greatest comebacks in Tour history.
Stage 19, Floyd outsprinted the wearer of the Yellow, Oscar Pereiro, to take a 30 second lead for the Ride into Paris. When Floyd stepped off the podium with the Yellow Jersey, one of the first people to wrap him in a congratulatory hug was...Oscar Pereiro.
You see, Floyd was the rider EVERYONE wanted to win, if it wasn't themselves or a teammate. His competition was mostly comprised of his friends. I've been reading an online journal of one of the riders at the Tour (who was knocked out by a race-ending injury in Stage 7), and he said Floyd was the rider he wanted to win, if his team didn't, because Floyd was everyone's friend. The other racers were pulling for Floyd to pull it out. They WANTED him to win. They're HAPPY he won. The same cannot be said of the two previous American winners of the Tour, who were either hotheaded blowhards (Greg LeMond), or, calculating pricks (Lance Armstrong). Oh, the other riders respected Greg and Lance, they just didn't LIKE them. The other riders like and respect Floyd, and are just as happy as he is about his victory.
Stage 20, the Ride into Paris, Floyd and Team Phonak showed why Floyd is so well liked. Traditionally, the winner of the Tour and his team lead the peleton
past the grandstands. Not this time. Team Phonak let Viatcheslav Ekimov, of Lance Armstrong's Team Discovery, lead the peleton
, because this was his 15th Tour de fwance...one shy of the record. THAT is why Floyd is liked so much...he's human, and he is honest, and he is a friend.
I don't pay as much attention to bicycle racing as I would like to, and I'm sure most of you pay even less attention than that. But, frankly, this is one race I wish I had paid more attention to. I would like to be able to tell my children and grandchildren some day "I watched when Floyd Landis won the Tour de fwance. A ride like that will probably never be seen again." Sadly, I'll only be able to tell them I read about it, after the fact.
For more (accurate) information on this Tour, you can go here
, or here
, or here
. Go ahead, poke around over there. This victory by Floyd was MUCH more than just another American victory at the Tour de fwance. It was a victory for the ages, by a man I can finally say I am happy he won.