Landis down, but don't expect him to sulk over Alps

LA TOUSSUIRE, France -- There won't be an American successor to Lance Armstrong's seven-year run in the Tour de France.

It was one mountain too many for Floyd Landis, who saw his dreams of becoming the third American to win the Tour dissolve in Wednesday's punishing four-climb stage across the French Alps.

The former Armstrong lieutenant cracked in spectacular fashion on the grinding final climb to La Toussuire and tumbled out of the top 10 just a day after recapturing the yellow jersey up the legendary L'Alpe d'Huez.

"I had a very bad day on the wrong day," Landis said after plummeting to 11th. "I suffered from the beginning, and tried to hide it, but at the end, I couldn't go."

The 30-year-old seemed to be on cruise control after taking back the yellow jersey in the first of three days in the Alps on Tuesday, but his notorious poker face simply couldn't hide bad legs 24 hours later.

Once the peloton hit the day's final climb, Landis drifted off the back of the front bunch, a telltale sign within the cutthroat peloton, where weaknesses are immediately pounced on and exploited ruthlessly.

"I knew I felt very, very bad," Landis said. "I did what I could. I kept fighting, but I didn't have much left. I did everything in my power to stay close."

His rivals could smell blood, and the attacks came fast and furious with about 6½ miles to go in the final climb. A deflated Landis simply couldn't respond. With him slumped over his handlebars, his yellow jersey swamped with sweat and his face ashen, the main contenders disappeared up the road.

He slinked across the line 23rd at 10:04 behind stage winner Michael Rasmussen and plummeted to 8:08 back of overall leader Oscar Pereiro.

"I saw that Landis couldn't give anymore, so I went on the attack," said Spain's Carlos Sastre, who moved up to second overall. "It's like a war out there. You have to attack when you can."

Landis didn't have a clear explanation of what went wrong. He shrugged off suggestions that he couldn't handle the pressure or that he didn't get enough to eat or drink during the stage.

"I don't think it was a problem of not eating enough," Landis said "A lot of times, I feel that way and I come around at the end. There was never a flat part for 15 minutes where I could recover."

It was the worst crack by a legitimate Tour contender while in the yellow jersey since Jan Ullrich lost the 1998 Tour to Marco Pantani. Ullrich bounced back to finish second overall; Landis knows his chances of a miracle comeback are slim at best with just four days remaining in the three-week, 20-stage Tour.

"I never assumed the Tour was won at any point," he said. "I said many times that, at any time, you can have a bad day, and that's why I was trying to race conservatively every day that I did feel good."

The 93rd Tour started nearly three weeks ago with three potential U.S. heirs to Armstrong's Tour throne, but things quickly unraveled.

Gerolsteiner captain Levi Leipheimer, who has had three top-10 finishes in four Tour starts, held a post-mortem after his disastrous time trial in Rennes in the Tour's first week when he lost more than six minutes to fall out of contention.

Next was George Hincapie, Armstrong's faithful sidekick through seven Tour wins, who faded out of the picture in the decisive climbing stage across the Pyrenees last week.

Landis stood tall, despite shocking the cycling world by announcing he'll need hip replacement surgery to relieve debilitating pain in his right leg. He insisted the grating hip pain didn't undermine his strength and roared into the prestigious maillot jaune in the Spanish Pyrenees.

Then his Phonak team confounded convention by letting Pereiro ride more than 30 minutes off the front in Saturday's stage to claim the race leader's jersey. Critics said it revealed weakness within the Phonak team, but Landis insisted the gamble was designed to temporarily forfeit the pressure of defending the yellow jersey in oft-overlooked, but taxing, transition stages between the Pyrenees and Alps.

Landis' gamble was Pereiro's godsend. Twice a top-10 Tour finisher and a solid climber who won a stage last year in the Pyrenees, Pereiro struggled through those same mountains and was settling for stage victories to save his Tour disappointment. Now that he's back in the yellow jersey 1:50 ahead of Sastre, he might not give it up before the Tour ends Sunday in Paris.

"This Tour has been 'loco' from the beginning. No one expected Landis to lose so much time," Pereiro said. "[Wednesday] was a very important hurdle. The podium is looking more secure. If we can get through [Thursday], we can dream of winning this Tour de France."

Don't expect Landis to sulk over Wednesday's melodrama for too long. The first thing he did when he went back to the team hotel was crack a beer and start plotting for Thursday's stage.

"He has a dream to win the Tour, and this just makes him angrier," said Allen Lim, Landis' trainer. "The human body isn't built to withstand this. He always seems to have one bad day during a three-week Tour; it's unfortunate that it happened [Wednesday]. He can recover and come back. He's not lying down."

This crazy Tour rolls on with another hard day in the Alps. Who knows? Maybe Landis still can make the final podium of the top three. Fans should continue to expect the unexpected in this highly unpredictable and extremely fun Tour.

Andrew Hood is a freelance writer based in Spain who has covered the Tour de France for ESPN.com since 1996.