Review of the 2006 Tour

Hope Fades
– Fabulous Fable or a failed fight?

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The benefit of hindsight allows us to look at the events of the 93rd Tour de France and question the legitimacy of the man who was crowned champion on 23 July. On that day in Paris, however, there was universal approval of Floyd Landis. The third American to win the title achieved his triumph with a fighting spirit… but was something else involved?

“I only had one choice.” Floyd Landis knew he could win the 2006 Tour de France and his quest for the yellow jersey eventually became a reality. But a series of events that could easily have been avoided ensured that the anticipation of exactly who the winner of the 93rd edition would be remained high until the dying days. As he stepped off the podium in Morzine after receiving a bouquet for his first stage victory, we shook hands and smiled at each other. It was the end of a special day, one that surely would be talked about for many years to come. The rider couldn’t stop grinning. He had just achieved a major coup one day after a mighty collapse.

I told him honestly what I thought of his winning effort: “Man, you’ve got big balls. That was amazing!”

He laughed and understood that my comment was about the bravado he showed. His tactic on the Col des Saissies was from yesteryear; old-school risk taking that would either pay big dividends or see him slip further down the rankings and into obscurity. The man who wore the maillot jaune after the first mountaintop stage finish had let the prize go two days later, before regaining it at the summit of l’Alpe d’Huez.

What was considered the Queen Stage this year looked like ending Landis’ bid for victory. He lost 10 minutes to the winner at La Toussuire and slipped from first to 11th overall.

He’d apparently recovered by stage 17 but if he still wanted to win, his only choice was to attack. He couldn’t wait until the last of five ascents and hope that he could accelerate over the Col de Joux Plane with such force that he would make up the eight-minute deficit to Oscar Pereiro’s lead. The Spaniard was given a gift of a half hour advantage in the 13th stage; he was in the overall lead and had the tenacity to hold on until Paris.

Until the halfway mark of the final day in the mountains Pereiro’s team was in charge of the peloton. An escape group had gone clear but there were no general classification challengers present. The Caisse d’Epargne-Illes Balears boys had to set a tempo that was fast enough to discourage other riders at the top of the overall standings from stealing time. And that’s what they were doing when a green and gold posse moved to the front of the bunch. At the base of the category-one Saissies climb, the Phonak team was on the move.

Floyd’s colleagues raced through until there was nothing left in their legs. One by one they fell by the wayside and then the team leader left everyone in his wake.

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“I was up front on the approach to the Col des Saissies,” said Cadel Evans who was one of the last riders to lose contact with Landis. “All of a sudden I saw Phonak getting organised and I remember thinking, ‘What the hell are they doing?’

“They rode and rode and rode… it was so fast! And by the time we hit the steeper parts of the climb, Landis was the only one left from his team. He was totally committed. He wanted to ride everyone off his wheel.” It was a phenomenal display, something not seen at the Tour for decades.

This was the sort of stuff meant to make this year’s Tour one to savour. An awe inspiring attack that was so ambitious it seemed ridiculous. He had 125km still to race. It was obscenely hot and four climbs were still ahead of him, yet Floyd never looked back. And it was all premeditated.

“After the stage to La Toussuire there was a catastrophic atmosphere but we were quick to respond,” explained Phonak’s tactician John Lelangue. The 35-year-old was calling the shots from the driver’s seat of a team car for just the second year. He used to be the voice of Radio Tour and has seen a few bike races in his time, but he also had advice from men who’d won virtually everything on the cycling calendar.

Lelangue knew he had a rider capable of winning the Tour on his roster. And instead of mourning the collapse of Landis in stage 16, he nutted out a plan dreamed up by his father and reiterated by Eddy Merckx. “After dinner there was time to reflect and everyone was really motivated to do something in the stage [to Morzine],” continued Lelangue.

“My father said we had to try everything. He proposed that we attack on the Col des Saissies… we had nothing to lose. The next morning, Eddy Merckx called to tell me the same thing. I’m used to being confident about advice from the old guys so we decided to try… and the plan was followed precisely.”

Michael Rogers was the last rider capable of matching the pace being pounded out by Landis. On the Col de Saissies he did what he could to follow but, like everyone else before him, the T-Mobile rider succumbed. “He was flying,” said Rogers. “We were motoring up a gradient of 10 per cent and Floyd was doing 38kph and still accelerating. Of course I wanted to stay with him but I just couldn’t.”

The Australian admitted that the heat was taking its toll. With the temperature soaring above 40 degrees it was not a day to push beyond your limits. “I paid for it later,” confessed Mick. “I vomitted about eight times during the stage. You had to keep drinking and eating but everything I took on board just came back up a few minutes later.”

As everyone suffered, Landis pushed on. At the summit of the 1,650m high Saissies climb he was over three minutes ahead of the peloton. This advantage continued to increase. At the top of the Col des Aravis, Floyd led by 4:30. By the final category-one ascent of the 2006 Tour the Phonak captain was the virtual leader of the race. He’d swept past most of the early escapees and put over eight and a half minutes between himself and the peloton. This was no ordinary ride!

“We were all stuffed!” This was Evans’ appraisal of what was happening behind Phonak’s renaissance man.

“Caisse d’Epargne was doing the work but they ran out of puff and Pereiro simply ran out of team-mates. That said, the CSC and T-Mobile teams still had numbers but they didn’t do anything until they eventually realised, ‘We’re going to lose the Tour!’

“After this became apparent, they rode well. It was really fast. It was a good move to do what they did because Carlos Sastre was the best rider in the third week of the Tour.”

That may have been the case, but Sastre’s captaincy was an improvised arrangement at CSC this year. The Spaniard was originally a support rider for Ivan Basso… the Italian never got to the start. His exclusion because of Operación Puerto wasn’t the only factor at work on the day to Morzine when Sastre finished as the second best rider, five minutes and 42 seconds slower than Landis.

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All but three riders finished over seven minutes behind the American in stage 17. Pereiro was seventh and still in yellow but he knew his days in the lead of the Tour were numbered.

“It’s clear that Floyd is the strongest rider in the race,” said Pereiro in Morzine. He had a 12-second lead on Sastre and Landis was at 30 seconds, but his humility allowed him to become a fan of the stage winner. “It’s incredible what he did today. I’m happy for him because he just dominated.”

Oscar Pereiro summed up the general feeling on the day. He could see that his time in yellow was limited. Landis was on fire and even the cynics in the salle de presse were inspired by what they’d seen in stage 17. “The Tour is alive,” declared Jean-François Quenet. “This is the sort of thing we’ve been waiting for: a rider with panache taking a chance and winning!”

By the following Thursday a different tone prevailed. Testosterone was the cause and – as is often the case in such a  situation – everyone became an instant expert. Landis had a wealth of courage, that could not be argued. But was there something else at work on the day he captured our imagination with his aggression on the bike?

Praise quickly turned to scorn when the UCI prematurely announced that the A-sample of the winner in Morzine failed a routine doping control… and for such a simple product!

In an era when the benefits of EPO are being exposed – and bastardised incarnations of the drug designed to increase the oxygenation of blood are appearing on a regular basis – Floyd was apparently resorting to a synthetic form of the hormone that’s produced primarily in the testes. Big balls indeed!

The basic method employed to find the product is to examine the ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone. To do this a lab performs a gas chromatograph-combustion-isotope ratio mass spectrometry test (see ‘Testing Testosterone’, p.30).

It’s not simple science and, providing hefty documentation, Landis and his legal team went public with their argument. It is claimed that significant margin for error exists and that not even WADA has approved of the protocol used by the French Châtenay Malabry lab that issued the positive findings.

On 11 September, Landis’ attorney Howard Jacobs asked the United States Anti Doping Agency to dismiss the case – it won’t be so simple. The date of the next hearing is yet to be announced but in going public with their line of defence by publishing the submission to USADA on floydlandis.com, it’s set a precedent for how future positive tests are dealt with.

It seems plausible that the man who helped Marion Jones clear her name after being implicated in the Balco investigation may rescue Landis. Even before the positive test was announced, however, questions were being asked. Was it physically possible to achieve what Floyd did in stage 17? Of course we’d like to think so; it was displays of force like this that made the 2006 Tour such a thrilling contest. But was it clean?

“On the internet, Floyd’s power output from that climb had been published,” explained Evans, who is the same height and weight as Landis. “He uses the PowerTap system and the power profile he had for the Col des Saissies was absolutely incredible. If you look at that effort alone – not even taking into account the fact that he continued on alone for another 125km – it just seems beyond normal human capacity.

“It seems beyond what’s normal. We’ll leave it at that. I can’t remember the power and the exact details of the Watts per kilogram but it was impressive. The ride he did that day was the most incredible athletic performance I’ve ever seen.”

After Floyd’s emphatic display on the road to Morzine he still wasn’t back in the yellow jersey. There was work to be done yet the consensus was that he’d overtake both Pereiro and Sastre on the penultimate day. Still, nothing was certain.

As early as stage seven it became evident who the serious contenders for the title were. Landis didn’t win the time trial in Rennes; that honour went to T-Mobile’s Sergei Honchar who also took over the mantle of race leader. A world champion in this discipline in 2000, the Ukranian had no illusions of holding off the American who was a minute behind him in the overall rankings at the end of the first week.

Other riders took chances, jumping into escape groups and reaping rewards such as a brief tenure in the yellow jersey. Cyril Dessel’s moment came in stage 10. Together with Juan Miguel Mercado – who won the stage to Pau – the Frenchman finished over seven minutes ahead of the peloton.

Dessel did not concede easily. He arrived at the finish the next day with a deficit of 4:45, exactly what his margin over Landis was after 10 stages. Rabobank’s Denis Menchov beat Levi Leipheimer and Floyd at Pla-de-Beret and the eight-second time bonus put Phonak’s American in the lead.

“We came here telling everybody we were going to win,” said Landis. “That was our objective from the beginning. It’s a long way to the end but so far we’ve done our job. Up until now, everything is fine. Things can change a lot. There are three difficult mountain stages to go and I wouldn’t write off anybody who is within a few minutes of my lead.”

Rabobank exhibited a strong team spirit to deliver Menchov to the finish of stage 11 but the Tour no longer had one totally dominant formation. Without Lance Armstrong the Discovery Channel squad lacked any semblance of structure. Although George Hincapie spent a day in yellow in the first week and Yaroslav Popovych earned a stage victory in Carcassonne, the days of the blue train controlling the peloton were over.

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AG2R-Preyovance put on a gallant performance to try and limit Dessel’s losses. T-Mobile stumbled along, picking up stage wins and days in yellow – they were also shaken by losing a team captain on the eve of the Grand Départ.

In terms of the general classification, the only other teams that began the Tour with dreams of yellow – and therefore sent a squad capable of controlling the peloton – were Caisse d’Epargne and Phonak. Davitamon-Lotto’s candidate was Evans but they also had a green objective.

On the second day Landis’ squad needed to be in charge of the pacesetting, a blunder was made. Five riders escaped early. In the quintet were Jens Voigt and Pereiro. After four hours of racing in temperatures over 40 degrees, the peloton was 25 minutes behind. “It’s hard to determine what the physical state of the riders is like after 200km of racing on such a hot day,” said Pereiro’s manager Eusebio Unzue during the stage. “In that case, the body commands the tactics not the mind.”

At the start of July, Unzue had a rider capable of winning the Tour. By day four of the race all hope appeared to fade.

The Spanish team’s star Alejandro Valverde crashed and broke his collarbone and the year’s objectives were in disarray. “Our team is going well,” said an optimistic Unzue the day after Valverde abandoned. “They’re professionals and are used to problems of this nature. I’m confident in the experience of Pereiro and Vladimir Karpets; we’ll see after the climbs in the Pyrenees what can be done… something might be possible.”

Nostradamous would be proud of Unzue’s early forecast. Phonak had a rider who was so strong he could turn up late for the prologue and still finish only nine seconds off the lead. In the next time trial Landis again had a minor hiccup with equipment and stopped to change a bike… yet he ended the day within striking distance of the yellow jersey.

The team managed by the son of Eddy Merckx’s former directeur sportif had a wealth of talent but it was uncertain if Lelangue’s boys could defend the overall lead for two weeks. Even after Landis did get into yellow, a tactical faux pas was promptly made by allowing Pereiro to gain an advantage on the day to Montélimar. He had won a stage and finished 10th overall only 12 months earlier as a member of Phonak. Did they know something about how his preparation had changed or were they just overly confident in Floyd?

Pereiro never hinted that, even with his half-hour gift, he thought it possible that he’d win. Rather each day in yellow was a bonus and a way of honouring his comrade who would have been perfectly suited to the parcours of the 2006 Tour.

“This morning I was only thinking of an attack and to try and win the stage,” said Pereiro in Montélimar. “To end the day in the yellow jersey is incredible. I don’t know if I can defend it but I can assure you, I’ll go to my limit trying.”

It wasn’t until the final time trial that Pereiro did reach his limit. He’d hung on by the skin of his teeth and was beaten by a ride that was phenomenal and later brought into doubt. He finished fourth in the last race against the clock and arrived in Paris with a deficit of less than one minute.

Landis had a rollercoaster ride around France in July. He experienced spectacular highs and demoralising lows but it was just the start of a battle that’s destined to have no winner. Hindsight allows us to look at comments made during the race in a different light. “There should be an asterisk next to the name of the winner,” said Lance Armstrong on the second rest day. “But it’s unfair to say that this is a tainted Tour.”

When Lance said that, he was referring to the exclusion of riders implicated in Operación Puerto not those who made it such a spectacular race. “These guys train their tails off. They show and beat everybody who starts so they are the winner. It doesn’t matter who has retired or who was kicked out, whoever steps on the top of the podium in Paris… they are the winner.”

It’s still too early to know if that will be the case but at the base of the Parisian podium on 23 July, Floyd insisted he was, “proud of the way I raced, even if it was a bit stressful at times.”

When asked about his plans for the future he could not have known what was about to unfold. “For now I have no intentions of changing teams, I’m very happy here. The best case scenario is that I won’t miss any racing. I should be alright. I’ve always believed in fighting for what you want.”
– Rob Arnold

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(Feature as PDF File)

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Author: design@ride

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