Now, that was a bike race!
Floyd Landis' Stage 17 ride on Thursday was the most amazing ride I have ever seen in my life and will go down as one of the best rides of all time, and Landis will go down as one of cycling's gutsiest riders.
For him to bounce back like he did, after such a devastating blow to his confidence, it's nothing short of amazing, (a) to just have the mind-set to give it a shot at all, and (b) to maintain his advantage over the 200.5-kilometer stage and the brutal last climb (12 kilometers on an 8.5 percent gradient).
Over the past few weeks, I was talking about how we were waiting for Landis to put the hammer down and deliver that death blow to the field. The French newspapers were even questioning whether Landis had that American warrior-like spirit in him. Thursday, the American delivered it.
When I first started watching the stage on television, there was about 100 kilometers to go. I saw Landis out front and I said to myself, "Good for you Floyd. If you're going to go out, go out in style." But then, when I saw him continue to build an advantage and saw the Caisse d'Épargne-Illes Balears team (the team of overall leader Oscar Pereiro) stop pulling in riders, I said then and there Floyd would at least win the stage.
On that last climb to Col de Joux-Plane, there's no tricks. You either have it in you, or you don't. And we saw that unfold pretty quickly Thursday. As a rider, you have to pick your speed and believe that you can get to the top. You can't crack mentally even though you have so many things going through your head -- it's the last big mountain of the Tour, you've already done 16 stages and you're just days away from Paris. That's why Landis' performance was just scary -- he was so focused out there. (It stunk to see my Team CSC mate Carlos Sastre come within just 10 seconds of the overall lead. I would have liked to have seen him be rewarded with the yellow jersey for at least a day after all of his hard work.)
But Landis smoked all of them. He had a fire in his eyes. That American spirit showed and he just flew out there. It was so motivating to see someone who struggled as he did to come back and win the way he did Thursday. Floyd is a tough nut and no one can question his heart and guts after Thursday.
What's even more impressive is how he handled the adversity. Wednesday night, I saw him in a television interview here in France and he had a smile on his face; this after he gave up the yellow jersey and faced an 8:08 deficit from the overall lead! He could have sulked and avoided the media and blamed his team, but he made no excuses for himself and said he just had a bad day. He put the disappointment behind him and stayed focused.
Landis has received some criticism over the past few weeks and he was questioned by everyone after Wednesday's collapse, but he gave everyone what they wanted Thursday. We wanted to see someone win in dramatic fashion and we got it. I have learned now never to say never or talk in absolutes about this Tour because it has been one of the most unpredictable races in history, but if I had to make a prediction, I'd say your top three finishers in Paris will be Landis, Sastre, then Pereiro in third.
So, will it actually turn out that way?
Friday's stage is a breakaway day, a mainly flat stage. There should be a group that finishes 15 minutes ahead of the peloton, which will contain all of the main leaders. For those riders, it's an active recovery day, as well. The overall team classification is up for grabs, so you might see some jockeying between Team CSC, T-Mobile and Rabobank.
Then, we head into Saturday's crucial time trial. This is Landis' specialty. And what plays into his advantage is that it's a slightly longer time trial (56 kilometers) than our first one on July 8 (52K). And after almost three weeks of racing, it comes down to who has the freshest legs out there, and Landis and Sastre are those riders. Other riders are just trying to survive. I thought it was an impossibility just 24 hours ago, but barring an accident, Landis should win Saturday. Pereiro is better at those prologue-style time trials, not something at this distance. Sastre is a good time trialist and will be Floyd's biggest threat.
I have nothing but praise for Floyd, and if I was in the peloton, I'd think the same thing. Every rider will congratulate him before Friday's stage. It was history. It doesn't happen often. If there was ever a miracle in cycling, it happened Thursday.
Bobby Julich, a member of Team CSC, is providing an exclusive diary for ESPN.com throughout the Tour de France. The American has been a professional cyclist since 1992. He finished third overall in the 1998 Tour de France and won last year's Paris-Nice race. For more information on Bobby, check out http://www.bobbyjulich.com.