This year's very suspenseful Tour de France finally has a virtually-guaranteed winner! With a technically perfect time trial performance this afternoon, Floyd Landis more than overcame the 30 seconds that separated him from the yellow jersey and, barring any unforeseen tragedies in the Tour's final stage on Sunday, will become the third American to win the Tour de France.
It was clear today that the Floyd Landis and the team of support staff around him were fully in sync. In the morning he rode the time trial course, and I've been told that his team director drove the course twice. From the team car behind his rider, John Lelange was able to do a lot more than simply provide encouragement. Like the navigator in a rally car, he was able to tell Landis about the upcoming turns and hills before he reached them. This information can be invaluable to a rider because it lets him know if he can stay in his aerodynamic tuck or if he has to come up to reach for the brakes. Knowing what road conditions were waiting for him just out of sight also helps a rider gauge his effort.
The big risk in today's (35.4 mile) (57-kilometer) time trial was that a hard and fast start could result in a big slowdown in the last 9.3 miles (15 kilometers) of the stage. Landis did start fast, but his knowledge of the course and his own ability level enabled him to keep his speed high all the way to the finish line. You can always tell when a rider is struggling in the second half of a long time trial; his shoulders roll back and forth and he shifts around in the saddle frequently, looking for more power. Landis, on the other hand, was smooth and powerful throughout the stage, and was rewarded with the yellow jersey for his tremendous efforts.
One of the unfortunate aspects of sports coverage is our tendency to focus solely on the athlete who wins, because it means we sometimes miss incredible performances from others. Oscar Pereiro started today's time trial in the yellow jersey but with only a 12-second lead over Carlos Sastre, and 30-second lead over Landis. Comparing the historical results over the course of these riders' careers, it seemed likely that Pereiro was almost certain to lose the yellow jersey and likely to fall all the way to third place.
Riding in the yellow jersey has been known to either crush a rider or give him wings, and for the first half of today's time trial, Oscar Pereiro was flying. At the first time check, the Spanish rider who has never been known as a strong rider against the clock was just ten seconds behind Landis and ahead of time trial specialists like Sebastian Lang and Time Trial World Champion Michael Rogers. At the second time check he was 57 seconds behind, then 1:30 behind at the 32-mile (51.5-kilometer) check and 1:29 behind at the finish. Obviously, it wasn't a winning effort by Pereiro, but it was impressive nonetheless. Instead of continuing to lose more and more time as the miles ticked by, he stopped losing time to Landis somewhere in the final 4.3 miles (seven kilometers), the hardest part of a long time trial.
Besides Pereiro, Andreas Kloden had a great time trial and was able to capitalize on a bad performance by Carlos Sastre to ride himself across a seemingly insurmountable time gap and, if all goes as expected Sunday, claim third place overall in the 2006 Tour de France.
So, after three exciting and unpredictable weeks of racing, we finally have a pretty concrete idea of which three riders will stand on the podium in Paris. Along the way, each man had days where everything went their way and at least one day they'd rather forget. For Landis, his great day came on Stage 17, the day right after his worst. Pereiro lost time in the Pyrenees and rocketed back up the leader board on Stage 13 to Montelimar. And for Kloden, the great day came on L'Alpe d'Huez and he'd probably rather forget Stage 17 to Morzine. But now they're all part of Tour de France history, and tomorrow will be a celebration of another year of incredible achievement in the world's greatest cycling race.