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Even Floyd Landis admitted he had very little chance of winning the Tour after yesterday's 'jour sans', but after a truly staggering solo performance across five Alpine climbs into Morzine the American rider came within 30 seconds of regaining the yellow jersey he lost so spectacularly just 24 hours before. Landis finished 5-42 up on Carlos Sastre and just over seven minutes ahead of yellow jersey Oscar Pereiro, with the three of them now covered by just 30 seconds.
A group of 11 riders was already more than 10 minutes up the road when the main peloton reached the first of the day's five climbs, the Col des Saisies. Phonak sent six riders to the front to set a frightening pace, which blew several of them and many others apart. It was so fierce that it put an end to Miguel Angel Martin Perdiguero's Tour, the Phonak rider abandoning soon after an intense bout of pace-making.
After Koos Moerenhout and Victor Hugo Pe¤a had kept the speed high before pulling aside, Landis was left at the front and the American simply kept pushing. He initially carried Sastre, Cadel Evans, Michael Rogers and Andreas Klden away with him, before they fell back to the yellow jersey group, no doubt having been instructed by their team managers that Landis's move was suicidal. At the summit of the Saisies, where local hero Patrice Halgand was first over, Landis was just 3-10 down, and the gap to the yellow jersey group was the same again.
At the bottom of the Saisies, the race climbed straight back up over the Aravis. Halgand topped this first again, but now his lead over Landis was just 1-14. The yellow jersey was another 4-30 back.
And so Landis's relentless pace continued. He caught Halgand on the next climb of the Colombire, with T-Mobile's Patrik Sinkewitz tagging along and no doubt aiming to help bring Klden into the action later. Halgand soon dropped back as Landis ploughed on, registering a gap of 8-35 over the yellow jersey group at the summit of the Colombire.
It was only on the 3rd-cat Chatillon de Cluses that CSC decided to take over the pace-making from Pereiro's Caisse d'Epargne team-mates and begin the pursuit of the American. With the intimidating bulk of the Joux Plane still to climb it appeared they had judged their response correctly because Landis was sure to fade, wasn't he?
On the early ramps of the Joux Plane, Landis dropped Sinkewitz, who was soon being waved to meandering pace by his T-Mobile directeur in order to help with the chase going on behind. This was being led by CSC's Frank Schleck, and the Alpe d'Huez winner's pace carried him and Sastre clear of the other contenders. Feeling the pace drop, Sastre left his team-mate and began his own chase of the American, who was still more than five minutes ahead up the mountain.
At the summit, Sastre was five minutes behind, but only had six in hand, and it was all downhill to the finish. Pereiro and the rest were at 6-45. Landis, the former mountain biker, is known as a superb rider on descents and made that ability count as he swooped into the finish. He greeted victory was an angry-looking punch of the air having completed an exploit worthy of Eddy Merckx in his pomp.
Sastre took the final descent with slightly less gusto and the 20 bonus seconds Landis took on the line pulled him to a gap of just 18 seconds on the CSC rider. Former trials rider Pereiro also lost a bit and now has a buffer of just 30 seconds on the American, who, with a long time trial to come on Saturday, must surely be the overall favourite again. That's unless there's another twist in this Tour tomorrow.
Stage 17, St Jean de Maurienne-Morzine
1 Floyd Landis (USA) Phonak Hearing Systems 200.5km in 5.23.36 (37.18kph)
2 Carlos Sastre (Spa) CSC 5.42
3 Christophe Moreau (Fra) Ag2r 5.58
4 Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre 6.40
5 Michael Boogerd (Hol) Rabobank 7.08
6 Frank Schleck (Lux) CSC
7 Oscar Pereiro (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne
8 Andreas Klden (Ger) T-Mobile
9 Haimar Zubeldia (Spa) Euskaltel
10 Cadel Evans (Aus) Davitamon-Lotto 7.20
11 Michael Rasmussen (Den) Rabobank 7.24
12 Denis Menchov (Rus) Rabobank
1 Oscar Pereiro (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears 80.08.49
2 Sastre 0.12
3 Landis 0.30
4 Klden 2.29
5 Evans 3.08
6 Menchov 4.14
7 Cyril Dessel (Fra) Ag2r 4.24
8 Moreau 5.45
9 Zubeldia 8.16
10 Michael Rogers (Aus) T-Mobile 12.13
1 Robbie McEwen (Aus) Davitamon-Lotto 252
2 Oscar Freire (Spa) Rabobank 207
3 Erik Zabel (Ger) Milram 172
1 Michael Rasmussen (Den) Rabobank 163
2 Landis 131
3 David De La Fuente (Spa) Saunier Duval 113
Best young rider: Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre-Fondital
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