A New Lance Armstrong?

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PETER DEJONG / AP

American Floyd Landis rides during the 19th stage of the 93rd Tour de France. His third-place finish enabled Landis to regain the overall lead of the race

Cyclists use a cutesy term to describe the complete loss of energy during a road race. They've "bonked." Let's be honest. American Floyd Landis didn't just bonk when he surrendered his maillot jaune, the Tour de France's yellow leader's jersey, during a steep Alpine climb last Wednesday. He tumbled from 1st to 11th place, a stunning 8 minutes, 8 seconds behind the leader. He giga-gagged. Choked. Race pundits didn't just write Landis off as a contender; they hurled him off the Col du Galibier. Even Landis seemed to accept his fate. "I don't expect to win the Tour at this point," he said after the 112-mile disaster from Bourg d' Osians into the Alpine ski town of La Toussuire. All he wanted, he said, was a beer.

To drown his sorrows? No way. "He was mad," says Landis' coach, Robbie Ventura, who met with his rider two hours after the stage. "He was like, ‘You know what, I'm the strongest guy in this race, and I'm going to do something about it.' He was going to make someone pay."

So a day after his big-time bonk, Landis, who suffers from a degenerative hip condition that will require replacement surgery, staged the most spectacular comeback in Tour de France history. He blazed over three steep, lung-burning mountain passes, shredding the field to win the day's 125-mile race by nearly six minutes and pull into third place in the overall standings, just 30 seconds behind ex-teammate and leader Oscar Pereiro of Spain. "He went from the penthouse to the outhouse to the moon," says Ventura. Saturday, as expected, Landis sprinted past Pereiro and Carlos Sastre, also from Spain, in the 35-mile time trial, in which each rider races, one by one, against the clock. Landis regained the yellow jersey for a third time.

That set up a Sunday coronation in Paris, along the Champs-Elysees. By custom, there's no racing on the final day if the leader has a significant advantage. Thus, an American was set to win an eighth straight Tour de France title. (A certain Texan named Armstrong won the last seven.)

Landis's win was a dream result for the Tour. For a few days at least, the comeback overshadowed yet another cycling doping scandal that eliminated several of the pre-race favorites, like Germany's Jan Ullrich and Italy's Ivan Basso. Their withdrawals could take nothing away from Landis's alpine achievement. "That was just crazy — the most impressive thing I've ever seen," says Jonathan Vaughters, who has been riding and coaching on the pro cycling circuit for the last 13 years. "It was like throwing a Hail Mary from one end zone to the other with two seconds left in overtime. I doubt we'll ever see that again."

Why did Landis implode on Wednesday? "It's not like we can download a cue from his body to see if it was dehydration, if it was heat exhaustion, if it was lack of calories," says Ventura. "The combination of all these things just zapped him completely." Landis' Phonak teammates, or domestiques, deserve part of the blame. They couldn't keep pace to hand him food and water — essential domestique gruntwork. On the steep climbs, you don't want to wait for the team car for food and drink, because you'll have to use even more energy to retreat and return to the front of the peleton. Plus, it's hard to grab replenishment from the car while descending a mountain at 50 mph.

Landis wasn't going to be caught short-handed again — he ate a ton on Wednesday night, and his teammates and he packed 70 water bottles for his miraculous Thursday trip. Some riders think his "bonk" could actually have helped him. "When you suffer that kind if implosion," says Thierry Gouvenou, a French ex-Tour cyclist who now works as a pacer on many stages, "you often overcompensate afterwards: get really rehydrated, charge up the calories, get extra rest. You have all this extra wind you put into your sails to give lift."

America's new spandexed sweetheart has big wheels to fill — you've won one, now go get six more (and at least a few against the big guns like Basso and Ullrich, when, and if, they can race again). Though Landis's tale doesn't include a return from cancer, his gutsy comeback, while enduring searing hip pain, gives it some Lance-like back-from-the-brink flair. Landis, an Armstrong domestique before a somewhat acrimonious split last year, had a social, not a medical, obstacle to contend with — his conservative Mennonite upbringing in Pennsylvania, where his parents eschewed television, dancing and especially Landis's bike habit. He's a little looser than Lance. "You'd want Lance to be your lawyer," says Vaughters. "You want Floyd to be your best friend."

Even the French, no friend of American cyclists, admire Landis's panache. "Can he become the kind of star who gets people excited?" asks Gouvenous. "Why not? He sure did this week." After all, he went bonkers on the Tour de France field.

—with reporting by Bruce Crumley and Tala Skari/Paris