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American sees hopes of victory collapse

| Thursday, July 20, 2006

LA TOUSSUIRE, France -- In a single torturous Alpine stage, Floyd Landis' lead and chance for a Tour de France victory slipped away almost pitifully Wednesday, as rider after rider passed him on the punishing final climb.

Abandoned by his teammates, Landis fell apart, dropped to 11th place and lost the leader's yellow jersey a day after regaining it in a spectacular ride up the famed L'Alpe d'Huez.

Landis, now 8 minutes, 8 seconds, behind new race leader Oscar Pereiro, was unable to attack, let alone intimidate his rivals, which was Lance Armstrong's calling card en route to a record seven Tour wins.

"I suffered from the beginning, and I tried to hide it," Landis said. "I don't expect to win the Tour at this point. It's not easy to get back 8 minutes."

With about eight miles to go up La Toussuire, Spain's Carlos Sastre burst out of a small group of would-be favorites that included Landis, and Pereiro and several other contenders gave chase.

The American simply couldn't keep up, losing the 10-second lead he started the day with.

"Sometimes, you don't feel well, and sometimes, it's on the wrong day. What can I say?" asked Landis, who is riding with an injured hip.

And with that, Landis went in search of something cold and soothing.

"Drink some beer ... that's all I'm thinking about now," he said. "I would be lying if I said I was not disappointed."

So it goes in this topsy-turvy Tour, the first in the post-Armstrong era.

It's been strange from the get-go.

On the eve of the July 1 start, nine riders, including pre-race favorites Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso, were sent home after they were implicated in a Spanish doping investigation.

Ever since, the race has lacked a clear leader. Seven riders have worn yellow -- one fewer than the record. Landis and Pereiro each have led twice since the American first won the leader's jersey last Thursday.

The first time, Phonak took a gamble: It allowed Pereiro to take the yellow jersey Saturday by not laying chase as the Spaniard broke away and, in the end, erased a deficit of nearly 30 minutes against Landis.

Landis regained the lead Tuesday by shadowing Germany's Andreas Kloeden, runner-up to Armstrong in 2004, to make sure that he didn't gain time on him.

When Pereiro regained the lead yesterday, Phonak's original plan appeared to have backfired, and the team looked as if it badly underestimated one of its riders.

"It was difficult to imagine that things would turn out like this," Pereiro said. "Floyd Landis seemed untouchable, but like everybody, he wasn't immune to collapse.

"Something in me said that today could be my day."

Denmark's Mickael Rasmussen won the 113-mile stage through the Col du Galibier and the Col de la Croix-de-Fer -- two climbs so hard that they defy classification in the cycling's ranking system -- before the uphill finish.

Kloeden, who finished fifth, was escorted by two T-Mobile teammates up that climb. Landis finished alongside Phonak teammate Axel Merckx, but only because the American had dropped so far behind.

All along, Landis hasn't been in tip-top shape.

He surprised many Tour fans last week by announcing that he was riding with increasing pain in a right hip that had been damaged in a 2003 crash, and he planned to have surgery on it this fall. It raised the prospect that Landis -- like cancer survivor Armstrong -- could overcome adversity and win cycling's premier race.

Landis insisted the hip wasn't a factor yesterday.

Pereiro, meantime, has been one of the biggest surprises at the Tour. Even though he was a top-10 finisher the past two years, he had come in primarily as a support rider for Illes Balears teammate Alejandro Valverde, who crashed out in Stage 3 with a broken right collarbone.

Overall, Pereiro holds a 1:50 lead over Sastre in second and 2:29 ahead of Kloeden in third.

Like Pereiro, the other two are also former support riders for their fallen team leaders: Kloeden for Ullrich at T-Mobile; Sastre for Basso at Team CSC.

Landis says he thinks all three have a shot at the title with a final Alpine stage today and a penultimate individual time trial Saturday.

The race ends Sunday in Paris.

Additional Information:

At the Tour

LA TOUSSUIRE, France -- A brief look at the Tour de France on Wednesday:

Stage : Cyclists embarked on the second of three Alpine climbs in the 16th stage, riding 113 miles from Bourg d'Oisans to La Toussuire under fierce sunshine.

Winner : Rabobank rider Mickael Rasmussen of Denmark in 5 hours, 36 minutes, 4 seconds. Team CSC's Carlos Sastre of Spain placed second, and countryman Oscar Pereiro of Caisse D'Epargne-Illes Balears was third.

Yellow jersey : Pereiro regained the yellow jersey from Floyd Landis, who dropped to 11th after a disastrous performance and crossed the line around 10 minutes behind Rasmussen.

Next stage : Today's 17th stage takes riders on a 124.3-mile trek from Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne to Morzine -- the third and final Alpine climb.

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