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  Stage 16 Photo  
  © 2010 A.S.O. Amaury Sport Organisation - All rights reserved.  
  Stage 15 Gap-Alpe D'Huez 187km July 18, 2006
by David Balkin

pixelAmerican Floyd Landis is back in yellow and barring incident that's where he'll stay until Paris. It's not a sure thing by any stretch but he is the strongest rider in this epic race until proven otherwise.
This 116 mile stage began with a monster climb of 9 miles at 7-10% and ended with another 9 mile monster climb at 8-11%; the iconic Alpe D'Huez. Winning this stage is an achievement of a lifetime; like a golfer winning the Masters.
pixelThat great honor went to a man from Luxembourg, CSC's Frank Schleck, who at 26 is another of the young riders ticketed for greatness. Schleck was the last survivor of a 25 man break in which he was much the strongest. That break was reduced to 15 at the bottom of the climb and when things went straight up only Damiano Cunego another of cycling's future stars at 24, and Eddy Mazzoleni could maintain the pace set by Schleck.
pixelPlaying the role of domestique, Mazzoleni went backwards shortly into the climb to help his teammate Andreas Kloden, T-Mobile's only remaining legitimate contender. That left Cunego and Schleck to fight it out for the stage win. Cunego's the better sprinter so Schleck attacked towards the end of the climb and came clear to win by 10 seconds.
pixelSchleck is now being mentioned in the same breath as Charly Gaul the great climber from another era also from Luxembourg. Gaul a former TDF champion was known as the Angel of the Mountains a well earned sobriquet but it was fueled by amphetamines that weren't exactly illegal in the dark ages but sure are now.
pixelBut the real story is Floyd Landis who rode brilliantly. He was never in any difficulty, riding conservatively when it was appropriate but at opportune moments attacked to dispatch his closest rivals. The only man he couldn't shake was Andreas Kloden. In a post race interview a gracious Landis talked about how Kloden was the stronger man but talk is cheap and Kloden didn't look it and certainly didn't have enough to distance himself from Landis.
pixelLandis sat on Kloden's wheel most of the way up with no expectation from his rival that he would stick his nose in front. It was up to Kloden to shake a resting (a relative concept) Landis who was waiting for the right time to go by. He did at the end in a vain attempt to finish 3rd and get a small time bonus but was nipped at the line by Stefano Garzelli who's well out of it but this is an event where also-rans are great riders and have great moments.
pixelKloden and Landis both finished with the same time and the T-Mobile rider stands alone as the most serious threat remaining to Landis. He's currently 6th in GC 2:29 behind but could be in 2nd tomorrow because he's only seconds out of 3rd and the men occupying 2nd and 3rd overall, Cyril Dessel and Oscar Pereiro don't seem capable of maintaining those podium positions.
pixelThere's no question this year is different but the one thing that's remained the same is the dominance of an American rider over the rest of the field. Landis is riding with supreme confidence and he's put everyone else on notice and on the defensive. That's a mindset that makes contenders, who are still giving it their all, realize it's 2nd and 3rd they're really going for and it affects the way they ride. There's always the unthinkable that Landis somehow fails to remain upright but nobody wants to win that way.
pixelWhen Eddy Merckx talks about his 5 TDF wins he never fails to mention that in one of them he was fairly beaten by Felice Gimondi who had a truly bad stroke of luck when he had a minor crash. When Gimondi went to remount he was hit by another rider and put out of the race costing him certain victory. This is a sport that teaches humility through reality; riders know when someone is stronger and so do others who are quick to point it out.
pixelOscar Pereiro's comments from yesterday that Landis will take back the yellow jersey when he wants speaks eloquently to the above point. Pereiro and his team turned themselves inside out to keep the jersey for another day but came up 10 seconds short.
pixelTom Boonen is out of the race. He put his foot down as they say in racing parlance; that's when a rider abandons voluntarily. He was not on best form throughout the race and didn't see the point in suffering any more than necessary. So he leaves without green but did spend a few days in yellow a lifetime achievement for almost any rider except him. It'll be interesting to see what spin he puts on this bittersweet experience.
pixelRobbie McEwen must be thrilled. The green jersey looks secure. His main rival is gone and Oscar Freire a sprinter who can climb didn't and on this stage came in 152nd dead last. Every day is different and Freire remains a threat although he's now a long shot to even make it close.
pixelDavid De La Fuente rose from the dead and has solidified his KOM lead. On the previous stage he went backwards but today he gathered in points without Rasmussen contesting. In fairness to Rasmussen he was called upon to do team duty and his main effort was to assist Kloden by dropping back and pacing his team leader.
pixelThe white jersey for best young rider heated up with Cunego's 2nd place finish cutting into Marcus Fothen's leading time by half from 12 to 6 minutes. With 2 more mountain stages these guys will be at each other and these sub plots are what give the TDF its special place in the cycling world.
pixelTomorrow's stage is another killer starting with a mind boggling 27 mile climb followed by a 14 mile climb and then 2 more hard climbs at the end. It's arguably the hardest stage of the race since it follows Alpe D'Huez. Some riders recover better than others and it's likely a fresh cast of characters, trying to make a name for themselves will be allowed off the front to try and rise to the occasion.


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