Landis Retakes Lead on Eve of Tour de France Finish

Barring a crazy finale, Floyd Landis' wild ride through France should end in the sweetest way possible Sunday on the Champs-Elysees.

With yet another stunning comeback in the final time trial, Landis reclaimed the famed yellow jersey of the Tour de France leader Saturday along with a 59-second lead that should land him atop the victory podium in Paris.

The American would be picking up where another Yank left off just last year, when Lance Armstrong completed his seventh and final Tour triumph.

"I could not be happier," Landis said. "It's one of the best days of my life."

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The Phonak team leader, who trailed former teammate Oscar Pereiro of Spain by 30 seconds before the penultimate Stage 19, outpaced the Spaniard by 1 minute, 29 seconds in the race against the clock.

Overall, Pereiro fell to second, 59 seconds behind Landis, while German rider Andreas Kloeden, 1:29 back, pushed Spaniard Carlos Sastre off the podium into fourth.

Sunday's ride could be the most anticlimactic moment of this unpredictable Tour, marked by Landis' bizarre performance swings — from despair to elation — and news that he's been riding with an arthritic hip.

Landis and Pereiro have taken turns wearing yellow four times since Landis first won it in the Pyrenees after Stage 11. Seven riders have worn the jersey this time — one short of the record.

"Hopefully, I won't give it away again," Landis said. "But I do think it's over now."

Landis became an instant legend among many cycling fans with his rage-fueled comeback Thursday, when he won the last of three Alpine stages to move from 11th to third in the overall standings.

After a strong ride Tuesday on the famed L'Alpe d'Huez ascent to take the leader's jersey for the second time in the Tour, Landis planned a conservative, Armstrong-like strategy.

That didn't work out.

Instead, he was forced to ride all-out after nearly crumbling in Wednesday's uphill finish in La Toussuire — where he lost the lead and fell 8:08 behind Pereiro.

The performance left him feeling "humiliation and depression," Landis said. A pep talk from five-time Tour winner and cycling icon Eddy Merckx, the father of his Phonak teammate Axel Merckx, helped.

A once-in-a-lifetime ride — "the best performance in the modern history of the Tour" according to race director Jean-Marie Leblanc — revived Landis' sagging chances. In his first Tour stage win, Landis closed the time gap from 8 minutes, 8 seconds to an incredible 30 seconds.

Saturday's time-trial was the finishing touch.

Landis, who finished second in the stage 7 time trial, had been expected to do well. Pereiro, sensing his lead in danger, mustered a strong ride of his own, finishing fourth and 1:29 behind Landis.

It wasn't enough.

"When the yellow jersey is on the line, people get inspired," Landis said. "I think we all learned a lesson in persistence."

Ukraine's Serhiy Honchar won the time-trial, by dominating the field just as he had in the first time trial two weeks ago.

Honchar finished the 35.4-mile course from Le Creusot to Montceau-les-Mines in 1 hour, 7 minutes, 46 seconds. Germany's Kloeden was second, 41 seconds back. Landis placed third, 1:11 off the winner's pace.

Sastre, the other title threat, entered Saturday's stage in second place. But he crossed the line 4:41 back of Honchar to drop to fourth overall, 3:13 back of the American.

The Tour got its first jolt on the eve of the July 1 start, when prerace favorites Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich, plus seven other riders, were sent home after they were implicated in a Spanish doping investigation.

Asked about those riders, Landis got a bit short-tempered.

"It was an unfortunate situation for all of us," Landis said, "and none of us in any way got any satisfaction out of the fact that they're not here."

The bum hip will Landis' first order of business once the race ends. He plans to have surgery this fall to ease the lingering pain in his right hip, damaged in a 2003 crash.

Winning the Tour before the hip replacement surgery would make it all the more sweeter.

"I'll fight as hard as I have in this race to come back next year, or the following year — whatever it takes — to be here again," he said.

An acolyte of Armstrong for three years on the U.S. Postal Service squad, Landis said that stint was vital in learning how to ride to win and focus on a single leader.

Landis grew up in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, the son of Mennonites. He said he was too "high-strung" for the religion, which shuns organized sports and fame-seeking. As a boy, his parents tried to discourage him from riding his bike.

Now, he's at the sport's pinnacle.

"At least the people watching got a good show," said Landis, who was raised without a TV at home. "It was probably better for television than it was for us."

Landis, unlike Armstrong, speaks little French. He says his vocabulary consists of the words for "beer" and "coffee." Still, his performance has endeared him to fans, and he has made it a point to master one phrase — "Merci beaucoup."