Stage 17 of the Tour de France was touted as the killer stage, the one that contained four staggering Alpine climbs before shooting down to the valley village of Morzine. This, the experts said, would be the toughest stage, the place where the eventual winner of the three-week slog around France would be selected.
I wish there was a way to easily capture the drama of that stage and put it into perspective with other astonishing feats of atheletic prowess and human force of will, but I’m not a sportswriter and won’t try to pull out the purple adjectives and hackneyed cliches to persuade you of the magnificence of that day. If you have four hours and a friend who has Tivo’d it, watch it, there are few examples of individual heroism to compare with it.
It was a script too incredible for a movie, the set up too perfect to ever be believed, but in the end it was about head-down, teeth-gritting effort on the part of one man fighting the pack and the clock.
Floyd Landis may have just won the most dramatic Tour de France victory in decades, if not the history of the race. Devaluing that win because the pre-race favorites were taken out in a doping scandal, comparing it to Lance’s seven … none of it matters because of what Landis did over the week. He goes into it having announced that he needs an operation on his hip, most likely an artificial hip replacement, and that this could very well be his last time in the Tour if not on a race course. Then he gets the yellow jersey in the Pyrenees, loses it, and then regains it on the fabled climb of the Alpe d’Huez with 500,000 crazed fans there to see yet another American move closer to the podium.
The next day, disaster. Landis bonks and loses 11 minutes on the final climb, plummeting from first to 11th place, down by 8’08”, written off by nearly everyone, including myself, as a lost cause.
Then comes the morning of the 17th stage, the hardest stage, and Landis attacks from the beginning, using his Phonak team to hurt the rest of the peleton. He breaks away and chases the breakaway, catches them, doesn’t pause to rest, to but keeps on motoring away, tailed a lone rider who put on the most shameless display of wheel-sucking ever seen. Landis received no help and expected no help (cyclists form temporary alliances to help each other cut through the wind as 80% of their effort is expended overcoming wind resistance).
He finished the day by winning the stage, his first in the Tour, and only 30 seconds back from the yellow jersey in third place. He sealed the deal in the individual time trial and this morning rode into Paris triumphant. The French have adopted his as their own, for the simple reason that the Mennonite from Lancaster, PA displayed the thing they love the most — panache. I call it perservance. Floyd Landis just rode into the history books.