If you haven’t seen today’s Tour de France already or read about it in detail, watch OLN tonight from 8 to 11. Yes, I know that’s the whole evening, but it’ll be worth it.
When you’re done, come back here, and I’ll explain why the race you just saw may well be the most amazing athletic accomplishment you’ll see in your lifetime.
UPDATE: OK, did you watch? Great. If not, here’s what happened — Floyd Landis had given up the lead in the Tour de France the day before (Wednesday). He had done more than give it up. He hit the wall with a thud. He “bonked.” He ran out of gas. The last climb was a nightmare to watch, as contenders flew away from him and the wanna-bes raced past him, perhaps a little puzzled to be passing the guy in the yellow jersey. When it was done, he was 8 minutes, 8 seconds back with just four stages remaining — and only two that offer any opportunity to shake things up.
What I asked you to watch on OLN was the last serious mountain stage, which happened to be Thursday.
And so one day after his epic collapse, Landis did something that just isn’t done in the Tour. He took off early, on the first of several killer climbs. Sure, you may sometimes see a breakaway from some mountain-climbing specialist like Michael Rasmussen who isn’t going to finish above 10th overall. But if you’re an established contender, the pack won’t let you go.
Someone who has a chance of winning will just send his team to the front of the peloton, and they’ll burn themselves out while the rest of the riders draft along, conserving energy for a final burst to blow past the breakaway man. Most breakaways in the Tour are reeled in, even if the people breaking away don’t matter in the grand scheme of things (by this time, guys who break away are often one hour or so down in the overall standings).
Riding in the pack, especially on the flat parts and to an extent on the downhills, is so much easier than riding alone. So if the pack wants to hunt you down, they generally can.
Well, Floyd broke away. And he won the stage. And he won by a large enough margin that he’s now only 30 seconds behind the leader. And Floyd’s a much better time-trial guy than the two guys ahead of him. (The time trial is Saturday. Then comes the largely ceremonial ride into Paris, where any breakaway will be quickly dealt with by the teams who want to spring a sprinter for one last moment of glory in Paris.)
There’s really nothing that compares with what Floyd Landis did on that stage. You could look up famous comebacks — baseball teams coming back from 12 games down, the Red Sox back from 3-0 down against the Yankees, Frank Reich‘s improbable comebacks with Maryland and Buffalo, etc. You could invoke Kirk Gibson at the plate on two bad legs, hitting a home run that would be replayed for the next 15 years.
But with all due respect to those things, what Landis did was more stunning, more unlikely, more impressive. Gibson needed one swing; Landis had to break away and stay away over a couple of mountains and several hard hours of racing, one day after going BONK on another slope. Football and baseball comebacks are powered by momentum. One day after bonking, with a bunch of emboldened cyclists and their powerhouse teams (Floyd’s team — NOT a powerhouse) chasing after you — that’s the opposite of momentum.
Let’s add this note — did Lance Armstrong ever do anything like this? No. Lance obliterated everyone in time trials, then rode conservatively, protected by a team that worked in perfect harmony to launch him up the final climb, where he would usually put a minute or two between himself and Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso or whoever else was chasing him that year.
Take off by yourself, overhaul the folks who broke away earlier (none contending in the overall), and gain so much time that you force another contender (Carlos Sastre) to break away from the panicked peloton and chase on his own? That just doesn’t happen.
And yet it did.
This is why we watch sports.