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By Andrew Hood
The only time Floyd Landis has broken a sweat so far in this Tour de France is when he’s facing a dirty horde of journalists and television camera lights packed into a hotel lobby on rest day press conferences.
The Phonak team captain remains calm as he enters the final week of the 2006 Tour de France in the driver’s seat, facing Tuesday’s grueling stage to Alpe d’Huez with trademark aplomb.
“I don’t predict I will win the Tour, but I believe I can,” Landis said during Monday’s rest day. “If we win the Tour, we’ll have to be the smartest racer, not the strongest racer.”
Second overall at 1:29 behind race leader Oscar Pereiro (Phonak), but more than one minute ahead of dangerous Russian Denis Menchov (Rabobank), Landis is oozing confidence as he rolls into a trio of brutal climbing stages across the Alps.
“There are always surprises in the Tour, but after two weeks into the race, we couldn’t have hoped to be in this position,” he said. “So far, the tactics have been perfect and we couldn’t have hoped for better.”
His immediate concern is keeping a lid on what’s been a highly unpredictable Tour. He identified his top threats as Menchov, Cadel Evans (Davitamon-Lotto) and Andréas Klöden (T-Mobile), three riders who can back up strong rides in the mountains with solid time trials.
And despite three daunting climbing stages, Landis believes the Tour won’t be decided until Saturday’s final individual time trial.
“My objective is to not lose time before the time trial, because that’s my strength against the others and I have confidence in my time trial,” Landis said. “My whole strategy is to get to the time trial in position to win.”
Landis seems unfazed by talks of alliances, attacks from the mountain goats or worries about his destroyed right hip, likely to be replaced sometime after the Tour.
His Phonak team has been skewered in some quarters for letting the yellow jersey slip away in Saturday’s stage, but Landis said it was all part of a high-stakes game of arriving in Paris wearing yellow.
“We took a gamble,” he said. “I am confident in my team’s ability to fight. We don’t have a team to ride at the front all day, but neither does anyone else. We have to take advantage of the situation. If there were teams with nine guys at the front in the mountains, I would be more worried.”
Ever since Yaroslav Popovych rode away from Oscar Freire to win Friday’s transition stage, the rumor mill has been grinding with talk of an alliance between Rabobank and Discovery Channel.
But Landis just laughed at the suggestion that the two teams are going to gang up on him.
“That wouldn’t make sense to me,” he said. “If it exists, and I don’t think it does, I’m not concerned about it, but it would be great if those two teams controlled the race for us.”
Monday’s press conference was relatively routine compared to the Tour’s first rest day when he announced he would need to have his right hip replaced following years of gripping pain caused by a degenerative bone condition dating back to a 2003 crash.
“I read from some quarters who said it was not a good idea to reveal a weakness in the Tour. What I say to that is, ‘I’ve got a problem and I’m going to beat you anyway,’” Landis said. “Some people asked me why I decided to reveal the problem now. It was difficult to decide when to reveal I had a problem. It’s been painful for two years. I’ve adjusted to it. I pedal a little different. Strangely enough, the racing is the best time because I have other things to think about.”
For Landis, this Tour is stacking up perfect for him and he’s not sweating the small stuff. It’s all about arriving in Paris in yellow. He doesn’t care if he wins a stage or finishes behind, so long as he’s on the top spot when it counts.