At the beginning of our ESPN.com diaries, I said that I wanted to see the strongest rider, not the opportunist or tactically strong rider, win the Tour de France.
We will see that in Floyd Landis when he rides into Paris on Sunday en route to a Tour de France victory.
After my Stage 7 time trial crash, I vowed never to go into another time trial without surveying the entire course (I didn't see the first 15 kilometers of that Stage 7 and we know what happened). You have to study each part of the course on the bike, unobstructed, not in the team car. Landis showed his professionalism and focus out there Saturday. It's not the easiest thing to do, getting up at 6 or 7 a.m., ride 56 kilometers, then ride it again full throttle three weeks into the Tour. Landis could have beat Oscar Pereiro, the overall leader heading into Saturday, with one leg. Oh, wait ... he did!
All kidding aside, all Landis had to do Saturday was make sure he didn't crash and ride like he knew he could. It was so inspirational to watch. It was really a formality. I believe Landis won the Tour on his historic ride up the Col de Joux-Plane. For me, it wouldn't have been as just for Pereiro to win the Tour; he was an opportunist on that crucial weekend stage where he made up almost 30 minutes to take the yellow jersey away from Landis. That's not to take anything away from Pereiro, who deserves to be on the podium.
Hats off to T-Mobile riders Andreas Kloeden, who raced into a likely third-place spot, and Serhiy Honchar, who won the time trial. It was Honchar's second time trial win of the Tour -- an amazing feat.
Still, their performances hurt the chances for my Team CSC mate Carlos Sastre. He deserves so much more respect than he'll receive with a likely fourth-place finish. He was the one protagonist in this Tour race, the one that brought so much excitement. He missed the yellow jersey by just 12 seconds in the Alps. He always seems to be one of those riders that's always in the shadows, but he had such a chance this year. We always say that fourth place is always the most disappointing and loneliest spot on the Tour because you just missed being in the podium photo. But Carlos is such a great person and such a great rider. He gave it his best from start to finish, and although I know he'll be disappointed, I can only hope people will pay Carlos more respect now.
So, what kind of respect will Landis garner? I know there will be some that will make the comparison between Landis and Lance Armstrong. For me, Floyd is a guy's guy. He works extremely hard, but he's human. He came from a difficult situation growing up, he had ups and downs climbing up through the pro ranks and then studied under Armstrong and Johan Bruyneel with then-U.S. Postal.
Lance has always been the best and a lot of his victories have been very calculated and formulated to a point where some Tours were boring. And that's not to take anything away from Armstrong. I can't put an equation that attests to the chances that were against him. What Armstrong accomplished by winning seven straight Tours is amazing. Americans love dominance. But in Europe, there were complaints that Armstrong was a robot. He could do everything and anything. They would say, "He even avoided injury by riding through a field." [In 2003, Joseba Beloki crashed out of the Tour, a crash that ended his career. Armstrong rode through a field to avoid crashing himself in a very uncharacteristic move.]
But Landis is a leader in a different kind of way. That's why a lot of the riders like him. He's not as calculating, but he's just as serious about cycling. Anyone that knows him, anyone that's ever trained with him has never doubted Landis' drive. He's a rider you can have a beer with, he's a character. He doesn't have that aura around him that Armstrong does. Landis also won without the overall dominant team we've seen in past Tours, i.e., the "Blue Train" of Armstrong's wins. Landis has a little bit of the maverick in him, he lives on the edge and takes a chance.
Landis also put some excitement and anticipation back into the race. This Tour was unlike any other we've seen in a long time. I know some will point to Greg LeMond's ride in 1989, when he erased a 50-second deficit and overtook Laurent Fignon in a 24-kilometer time trial on the final stage. But, to me, there's no comparison. That was a 27-minute effort and Greg won partly by being more open to technological advances. LeMond was also racing against one guy. What Landis did on that last stage in the Alps was what we riders call "a la pedal" or "with the pedal." He was using more muscle, he beat a peloton of riders and he did it over a 200.5-kilometer stage. I can't remember the last time someone did that. LeMond's win could arguably be more "exciting," but Landis' was more "impressive."
Now, Landis gets to enjoy Sunday's "procession" into Paris. The stage is really a reward to the wearer of the yellow jersey and his team. The first 80-90 kilometers are really a festive occasion. The same riders you've battled against for three weeks are now your best friends. You congratulate everyone and you always make time to ride up and congratulate the man in yellow. You are soaking it all in for those few hours, and you experience a great feeling of fellowship as you all collectively realize you are going to finish the Tour de France, something that makes you an incredible bike rider in its own right.
But as soon as the riders smell Paris, it's on like Donkey Kong! And then, when you reach the finish circuit around the Champs-Elysées, you are humbled by the fact that the most famous boulevard in the world is your playground for an hour. Then, on the final stretch, it makes the hair on the back of your neck stick straight up. It's such an amazing feeling that not many people get to experience. You'll see that last-ditch effort by the sprinters at the finish, but otherwise, riders are trying to soak it all in.
After the finish, there's also the "lap of honor," where each team takes a lap together. You finally get to go out and celebrate. You also get a chance to finally see the fans. Some even stop to sign autographs and take pictures. It's very climatic because you've been working so hard your whole life and over the past three weeks, and then, there's a little bit of a letdown when it's all said and done. Next week, the Tour de France will be forgotten and riders and teams will move on to the next pro tour race.
But after this most exciting and unpredictable Tour de France, no one in the world will debate that the strongest rider and gustiest rider won the race. Hopefully, we'll get to see Floyd Landis ride again in France in 2007.
Bobby Julich, a member of Team CSC, provided an exclusive diary for ESPN.com throughout the Tour de France. The American has been a professional cyclist since 1992, 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.