You know, maybe Floyd Landis and Oscar Pereiro are on to something here. The men currently sitting in first and third places overall both overcame seemingly insurmountable deficits to rise back to the top of the leaderboard, and the massive amounts of time they lost may actually have helped them get back into the race.
At the start of Stage 13, Pereiro was nearly 29 minutes behind Landis, who was wearing the yellow jersey after a fine performance in the Pyrenees. Conventional racing wisdom says that a man who loses more than 20 minutes in one mountain range is going to lose time again in the next mountain range. Had the Spaniard only lost ten minutes in the Pyrenees, he would have been identified as a greater threat for the overall classification and the Stage 13 breakaway would have been contained or completely chased down.
Consider what happened to Levi Leipheimer. He lost more than six minutes in the Stage 7 individual time trial, but remained closely marked by the other yellow jersey contenders in the mountains. He lost enough time to make it necessary to pull off a big breakaway to get back up the leader board, but not enough to be considered a non-threat by the other contenders.
So, as odd as it may sound, it may have been fortunate that Floyd Landis cracked 11 kilometers from the summit of La Toussuire yesterday, finished ten minutes behind stage winner Michael Rasmussen, and plummeted from the yellow jersey to 11th place overall, more than eight minutes behind Pereiro. If he had held on longer and cracked five kilometers from the finish, he probably would have started Stage 17 just four minutes behind the yellow jersey, right in the heart of the top ten in the overall standings.
Instead of a total implosion, a loss of just four minutes would have been seen as a minor failure and this morning Landis would have been considered a more serious threat to the race lead. Similarly, Landis probably wouldn't have seen his situation as desperate, nor resorted to such an extreme effort if he'd only lost a few minutes. He probably would have waited until the later climbs to launch an attack, which may not have given him sufficient time to build big enough lead.
It's important to understand that Landis was not given a free pass today; he earned every second he clawed back from the men in the top ten. Yet, the magnitude of the deficit he had to overcome affected his motivation, tactics, and determination. There was no reason to ride conservatively at all. It didn't matter if he cracked again because there was nothing left to lose. That freed him to go for broke on the climbs, the descents, and everything in between. And whether or not the men chasing him underestimated his strength and resolve, there was nothing they could do to contain him.
On a mountain stage with five major climbs and almost no flat roads at all, there's only so much teammates can do for you anyway. There's not a lot of draft to be had when you're climbing at eight to 12 miles per hour, and teammates can't help you at all on the long and twisting descents. For much of today's stage, the course leveled the playing field that Landis and all of his pursuers were playing on. If this had been a flat to rolling stage, the advantage would have gone to the peloton, but in the mountains, one determined and powerful rider can hold off everyone.
And as amusing as it is to think that losing massive amounts of time could be a good tactical move, I'm sure neither Landis nor Pereiro would recommend it and neither would I. Rather, the lesson to learn from these two riders is that regardless of the deficit you find yourself in, it's imperative to go on the offensive and continue racing. The only man who truly loses is the man who completely gives up.
The last two times the Tour de France winner came from behind to seize the yellow jersey in the final time trial it was American Greg Lemond who wore it into Paris. In 1989, he erased a 50-second deficit in just 24 kilometers to win the Tour ahead of Laurent Fignon by eight seconds. The following year, Claudio Chiappucci gained a lot of time over the Tour contenders in a Stage 1 breakaway, and LeMond chipped away at his lead for the next three weeks. Coming into the final time trial with a very slim deficit to overcome Lemond finished more than two minutes faster than the Italian and won his third and final Tour de France.
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