MONTCEAU-LES-MINES, France -- Floyd Landis will win the 2006 Tour de France his way.
Landis slipped back into the yellow jersey Saturday after erasing a 30-second gap to Spanish rider Oscar Pereiro in a long time trial and will ride into Paris for Sunday's ceremonial finale on the Champs-Elysées nursing a 59-second lead.
Only a major catastrophe like a broken leg will keep the 30-year-old from inheriting the Tour throne vacated by seven-time champion Lance Armstrong.
"I said before, the most exciting way to win the Tour would be in the final time trial, but I really didn't want it to come down to that," Landis said after finishing third at 1:11 behind winner Serhiy Honchar. "It takes a lot of hard work and sacrifice to win the Tour, and on top of that, a little bit of luck. I feel lucky."
The blond-haired Californian was favored to erase the gap to Pereiro, but nothing was sure until the riders headed out on the 56-kilometer course one at a time in a race against the clock. With a slight breeze and oppressive heat, Landis rode with cold calculation, putting just enough into his ride to take the time without big risk.
Third place was just good enough to grab the maillot jaune, and that was good enough for Landis.
"It was a great performance from Floyd. He just wanted to get some time on Pereiro, he didn't want to risk to win the stage," Phonak team manager John Lelangue said. "Landis didn't leave anything to chance [Saturday]. He knew [Saturday] morning that he was going to win the Tour."
Following Sunday's triumphant dash into Paris, Landis will become just the third American to win the Tour. Landis' audacity and tenacity through this crazy and wild Tour will also deliver America's eighth consecutive Tour victory, an extraordinary streak that's unmatched in post-war Tour history.
Landis withstood it all during this unpredictable Tour, overcoming attacks, mechanical problems, horrible bonks and amazing comebacks to win in triumphant style. His bonk Wednesday nearly torpedoed his hopes, but he roared back with a historic stage victory to Morzine to vault back into contention.
Landis' up-and-down ride into the yellow jersey is in stark contrast to the man from whom he inherits the throne.
For seven years, Armstrong imposed his will on the Tour's unruly bunch as the unquestioned patron of the peloton. With the exception of a thrilling Tour in 2003, when he won by just 61 seconds, Armstrong's victories followed a dominating, methodical template that unfolded to plan.
"His win on Thursday was something of pure emotion, fire, and heart. It's truly Floyd at his best, saying, 'Screw you, I'll do it my way' to the rest of the world."
Former U.S. Postal rider Jonathan Vaughters on the historic ride that put Floyd Landis back into contention
Armstrong would carve huge differences in the time trials and then suck the life out of his competition by dominating the mountain stages.
While Landis will keep Armstrong's American winning streak alive, the pair are as different off the bike as they are winning on it.
"Lance is a guy you want as your attorney," said ex-pro Jonathan Vaughters, who raced with Armstrong on the U.S. Postal Service team and is now CEO of Slipstream Sports and owner of the TIAA-CREF team. "He is effective, disciplined and he wins. His decisions are calculated to make the best of a situation."
Armstrong built a fearsome, powerful team around him to smother the competition, while Landis squeaked by with an outgunned Phonak team full of aging rouleurs (bigger cyclists who control the main pack) and no real climbing specialists.
The Texan was an aloof, arrogant perfectionist who would require absolute sacrifice from his teammates. Landis is a jokester off the bike and is universally liked by both his teammates and rivals.
The biggest hugs after Landis stepped up onto the winner's podium Saturday came from the man whom he beat, Pereiro, who was pushed down to second.
"Floyd rides and thinks with his heart. He's a loyal, honest guy, who just says it like it is and doesn't change his core person for anyone," Vaughters said. "He's a guy you want as your best friend."
While Armstrong roared to Tour domination, capturing 19 stage victories en route to his history-making seven straight victories, Landis' victory will be marked by a more improvised, scrambling tactic born out of a Tour without control.
Mechanical problems in the opening prologue and first time trial probably kept Landis out of the yellow jersey in the first week, but he played a tactical hand to snatch the lead in the Pyrenees only to let it ride away with Pereiro over a long, 30-minute breakaway. That's something Armstrong's "Blue Train" would never have done once the Texan had taken a stranglehold on the yellow jersey.
Landis quieted the critics when he regained the lead up L'Alpe d'Huez, but his spectacular collapse on the punishing climb up La Toussuire in the Tour's hardest stage sent Landis' hopes spiraling out of control. Rivals and pundits alike were quick to scratch Landis' name off the contenders list. Then, he delivered the biggest turnaround in cycling history.
"The next day, my objective remained the same -- to win the Tour," Landis said. "I knew it was a long show to win the race, but that was my goal."
His attack on the road to Morzine was something out of cycling lore. L'Equipe called it the ride of the century. The intensity, the desire and the ambition, however, was Armstrong-esque.
"His win on Thursday was something of pure emotion, fire, and heart," Vaughters said. "It's truly Floyd at his best, saying, 'Screw you, I'll do it my way' to the rest of the world."
That's where Armstrong and Landis are quite alike. Both rode on anger. Both were running away from troublesome family backgrounds; Armstrong escaping a fatherless, single-mother upbringing and Landis turning his back on his Mennonite parents in rural Pennsylvania.
Both found an escape with the bike. Both found salvation on two wheels.
"They both share the need to win," Vaughters said. "Winning fulfills them. For different reasons, but it is what makes them whole."
Armstrong wasn't satiated until he won seven Tours and rewrote history.
Landis seems content with one. The world will have to wait to see how hungry he is in the coming years.
Andrew Hood is a freelance writer based in Spain who has covered the Tour de France for ESPN.com since 1996.