MORZINE, France – Written off as hopeless just a day earlier, Floyd Landis needed a once-in-a-lifetime ride Thursday to revive his sagging chances of victory in the Tour de France .
Did he ever deliver.
With a sensational display of brio and guts in the style of seven-time Tour champion Lance Armstrong, the American put himself back in the title hunt with a solo win in the last Alpine stage.
The astonishing rebound silenced nay-sayers — including Landis himself — who believed his chances to win on Sunday were doomed after he lost more than 8 minutes to the race leader in a punishing stage just 24 hours earlier.
"I was very, very disappointed yesterday for a little while," Landis said. "Today I thought I could show that at least I would keep fighting.
"No matter what — whether I win or lose — I wanted to prove to my team that I deserved to be the leader," he said. "I didn't expect it to work quite that well."
Sensing his rivals would be relatively depleted, Landis pedaled like a man possessed — going all out for his Phonak squad.
In the first climb, Landis brashly spurted ahead of Oscar Pereiro, wearing the yellow jersey, and other key Tour contenders — catching then overtaking a breakaway group that had gotten ahead earlier.
"I took a long shot," he said, "but after all those hard mountain stages you can usually assume that people are tired and chasing doesn't work so well."
One by one, he left them all behind.
Landis, who rides with an injured hip, pumped his right fist in celebration as he crossed the finish of
He began the day in 11th place, trailing Pereiro by 8 minutes, 8 seconds. By the time he finished, he had jumped to third, and had closed the time gap to an incredible 30 seconds.
The 30-year-old from eastern Pennsylvania's Mennonite country slashed the deficit by finishing 7:08 ahead of Pereiro. He also trimmed an extra 30 seconds by earning bonus points for winning the stage and placing well in sprints.
It was a striking, stirring reversal from Wednesday, when Landis withered almost pitifully in an uphill finish to the Tour's hardest Alpine stage and lost the leader's yellow jersey to the Spaniard.
Race director Jean-Marie Leblanc said Landis had given "the best performance in the modern history of the Tour" — adding that only a day earlier, he was "gone, finished, condemned."
Spain's Carlos Sastre finished second — 5:42 after Landis — and held second overall, 12 seconds behind Pereiro. France's Christophe Moreau was third, 5:58 behind.
Landis broke out ahead of top rivals early in the trek from Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne through three hard climbs on the way to Morzine. The last ascent, the Col de Joux-Plane, is among the toughest in cycling.
He repeatedly doused himself with water in uphill climbs to fight the heat, and massaged his thighs on the way down to get ready for more punishing ascents ahead.
Even Landis' rivals were awe-struck at his comeback.
"It's incredible the way he attacked," Sastre said. "In the last 4 or 5 kilometers, we attacked Landis with five riders — and he was still better."
Making it even more incredible is that Landis is riding with an arthritic hip, an injury from a 2003 crash that he hopes to correct with surgery this fall.
With only three stages left — two of them mostly flat rides in which breakaway gains are unlikely — the stage injected new suspense to a race poised for one of the tightest finishes in years.
Not since American Greg Lemond edged out Frenchman Laurent Fignon by a record-low 8 seconds in 1989 has less than a minute separated the winner from the runner-up in cycling's premiere race.
"Three riders, 30 seconds apart," Leblanc said. "See you on Saturday" — when the second and final time trial could determine the winner.
The first Tour after Armstrong's reign has been about as wild as they come. The Texan rarely left any doubt about who would win going into the last few days.
With Armstrong retired — and his legendary dominance of rivals a memory — the race really blew wide open on the eve of the July 1 start. That's when pre-race favorites Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso — along with seven other riders — were ousted after their names turned up in a Spanish doping probe.
Seven riders have worn the yellow jersey this year — one short of the record. Pereiro and Landis have each worn it twice.
Along with the traditional cruise into Paris for the finish on the Champs-ElysDees, Friday's stage, bringing riders westward out of the Alps, isn't seen as a big challenge.
The last big test is Saturday's race against the clock, a 35.4-mile ride that snakes from Le Creusot to Montceau-les-Mines.
It's about the same length as the first time trial in Stage 7, though a little more hilly. In that one, Landis was second, 1:10 faster than Sastre and 1:40 ahead of Pereiro.
"I'm fairly confident in my time-trialing abilities, assuming I didn't overdo it today," Landis said. "There's a chance of that. We'll have to wait and see."