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Floyd Landis finally imposed some order on this 'Tour of anarchy' when he won a time trial within the final time trial of the race at Montceau les Mines. Although the American finished third behind T-Mobile duo Serhiy Gonchar and Andreas Klden, he took what now seems an unshakeable grip on the yellow jersey by completing the rolling 57km course 1-29 faster than race leader Oscar Pereiro, a gap that moved Landis into the lead by 59 seconds ahead of the stubbornly dogged Spaniard, who finished a very creditable fourth on the day.
Landis, as expected, was always ahead of Pereiro on another scorching day that saw some of the Burgundy roads watered to prevent excessive melting of the top surface. There was never any prospect of the Phonak team leader chasing down the stunning time set earlier in the afternoon by Honchar - all he and team manager John Lelangue were interested in was setting splits that kept the pressure on Spaniards Carlos Sastre and Pereiro, who went off after him.
Sastre fared less well, steadily losing time that saw him first lose any chance of first place, then soon after any hope of hanging onto second, and, no doubt frustratingly, the final podium spot when he 4-42 down in 20th place. Klden claimed that with second place on the day to Gonchar, which moved him to 1-29 down on Landis. Both the German and Sastre, though, must still be kicking themselves for leaving it so late before starting to chase Landis on the stage to Morzine.
But with just Sunday's 'parade' stage into Paris remaining - and little prospect of the overall contenders attacking each other given the fairly large gaps between them - there is little doubt that the yellow jersey is once again on the shoulders of the race's strongest rider. Apart from his spectacular loss of speed at La Toussuire three days ago, which seemed to have lost him the race, Landis's problems have been tactical rather than physical.
Letting Pereiro back into the race as it headed towards the Alps almost proved to be disastrous, while his failure to press home his advantage over all of his rivals bar Klden on Alpe d'Huez let Sastre and others back into the frame. But that has all been rectified now, and Landis can feel totally satisfied with a day when Phonak's only setback was the loss of South African Robert Hunter, who finished 18 minutes down and outside the time limit.
"They really made me work for this jersey," said Landis. "We've seen so many times at the Tour that when the yellow jersey is on the line, the rider wearing it can be inspired. I'm confident in my ability in the time trial but when it comes to a race like today nothing is a formality. It's wonderful to win this race and it's something that I feel is a real honour to do."
Landis admitted the likely Tour victory has given him a new level of confidence. "I honestly can't find the words to tell you how I feel. I don't know what comes next. I've been consumed by this race but I'm sure there'll be plenty of things for me to do once it's all over. To whoever was watching, thanks for the support: hopefully it was exciting for you because it was a bit stressful for me."
Pereiro too was in celebratory mood despite his loss of the lead on the penultimate day. "I may not be wearing the yellow jersey but, believe me, I feel good," he said. "I've finished second in the Tour de France. After riding a 57km time trial and still being in this position. it's special for me. It's a great day for Floyd Landis he was very good and I'm happy for him. After the tough days that I had in the Pyrenees, finishing second is something I'll always cherish. It's a win for a team which always believed in me. I knew what times I had to beat in the time trial and, as I said before, the plan was to go to my limit. I did that and fourth in the stage is good for a rider like me."
There was satisfaction too for Damiano Cunego, who finished three places and 31 seconds ahead of Marcus Fothen, his main rival for the white jersey of best young rider. So impressive was Cunego in this his least favoured discipline that he pushed David Millar out of the top 10 today.
Stage 19, Le Creusot-Montceau les Mines
1 Serhiy Gonchar (Ukr) T-Mobile 57km in 1.07.45 (50.48kph)
2 Andreas Klden (Ger) T-Mobile 0.41
3 Floyd Landis (USA) Phonak 1.11
4 Oscar Pereiro (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne 2.40
5 Sebastian Lang (Ger) Gerolsteiner 3.18
6 David Zabriskie (USA) CSC 3.35
7 Viatscheslav Ekimov (Rus) Discovery Channel 3.41
8 Cadel Evans (Aus) Davitamon-Lotto
9 Bert Grabsch (Ger) Phonak 3.43
10 Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre 3.44
11 David Millar (GB) Saunier Duval 4.01
1 Floyd Landis (USA) Phonak Hearing Systems 85.42.30
2 Oscar Pereiro (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne 0.59
3 Andreas Klden (Ger) T-Mobile 1.29
4 Carlos Sastre (Spa) CSC 3.13
5 Cadel Evans (Aus) Davitamon-Lotto 5.08
6 Denis Menchov (Rus) Rabobank 7.06
7 Cyril Dessel (Fra) Ag2r 8.41
8 Christophe Moreau (Fra) Ag2r 9.37
9 Haimar Zubeldia (Spa) Euskaltel 12.05
10 Michael Rogers (Aus) T-Mobile 15.07
11 Frank Schleck (Lux) CSC 17.46
12 Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre 19.21
13 Levi Leipheimer (USA) Gerolsteiner 19.22
1 Robbie McEwen (Aus) Davitamon-Lotto 254
2 Erik Zabel (Ger) Milram 175
3 Thor Hushovd (Nor) Crdit Agricole 160
1 Michael Rasmussen (Den) Rabobank 163
2 Floyd Landis (USA) Phonak 131
3 David De La Fuente (Spa) Saunier Duval 113
Best young rider: Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre-Fondital
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