Sunday, July 23, 2006

What A Long, Strange Trip It's Been


Last year, we saw the last ride of the man who is arguably this generation's most dominant professional cyclist, Lance Armstrong. And I said about a year ago that I'd be looking forward to this year's Tour, because for the first time in many years, it'd be a wide-open race. I had no idea how right I'd be.

First off, we had no notion of what the outcome of the Operation Puerto investigation would be. I'm assuming, of course, that the investigation was underway a year ago. Things like that don't spring up overnight. But I think everyone was surprised at how widespread it was, and how many major cyclists were caught up in it. This included everyone's favorites for the top two podium spots: Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich. Me, I was kind of hoping it'd be Basso's year. He seemed a likeable chap. Still does, really. I hope the allegations are false, in his case. But that might not be the way to bet.

Still -- nine of the top contenders knocked out, before the first crank of the pedals. And one victim of collateral damage, since Alexandre Vinokourov's team was disqualified for not having enough riders qualified to start.

So it was a weird year, right from the start. Maybe that contributed to the crashes in the first week, which is always dangerous. But no clear leader emerged. This race tied the all-time record for the number of lead changes. Truly, it could have been any of a half-dozen or more men. But in the end, the real surprise was that it ended up being a man who is going in for hip replacement surgery later this fall: Floyd Landis.

Not that you could tell from his riding that he's got hip trouble. He had a really bad day last week that seemed to put him out of contention, but that had nothing to do with his hip. But everyone had written him off. You just don't make up a ten-minute deficit in the mountains. It simply is not done.

Someone must have forgotten to tell Landis. Because that's exactly what he did, the very next day.

Virtually everyone who witnessed that ride called it the most amazing thing they'd ever seen. I would tend to agree. It was an amazing display of diamond-hard will, an uncompromising unwillingness to accept failure. No one could touch him. He broke away from the peloton, even broke away from the riders who tried to follow, and rode the Alps alone. They tried to reel him in. Tried, and failed.

Yesterday's time trial sealed the deal. He didn't win the time trial, but he didn't have to. He just had to hang a few minutes on the two guys still ahead of him as of yesterday morning. Which he did, handily.

So now, the crown that Lance Armstrong left at the finish line a year ago has been picked up by another American, in a ride that people will be talking about for years to come. It was fun to watch, and it'll be fun to watch again next year, as Floyd Landis tries to become the first man to return to professional cycling after undergoing hip replacement surgery. Bionics comes to professional cycling!

Man, you just gotta love it. You absolutely can't make this up.

Mark your calendars: Next year, it starts in London. July 7, 2007. Who's gonna take it all the way home? Will Floyd Landis become another testament to the miracle of modern medicine?

There's only one way to find out ...

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