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Published: Tuesday, 7/25/2006

An American keeps the yellow

SO MUCH for turning the Tour de France back over to the Europeans. The retirement of the Tour's greatest champion, seven-time winner Lance Armstrong, was supposed to signal the end of America's domination of the world's most famous bicycle race.

Somebody forgot to tell Floyd Landis, whose victory ride down Paris' Champs-Elysees Sunday represented the 11th time an American has won this grueling three-week race in the last 21 years.

His triumph was all the more remarkable because he not only appeared to have taken himself out of contention with a disastrous ride last Wednesday, dropping him from first to 11th and falling more than eight minutes off the pace, he was riding with a badly deteriorated right hip, which will need surgical replacement in the fall.

Somehow, drawing upon some inner reserve that seems to separate the great athletes from the merely good, Landis erased all but half a minute of the deficit on Thursday and then regained the lead with a spirited all-or-nothing ride in Saturday's time trial. Suddenly back in front with a 59-second lead, surrounded and protected by his teammates, his Sunday ride into Paris was basically ceremonial.

Landis labored under a much different handicap as well: He wasn't Lance Armstrong. Few Americans outside the rather limited cycling fraternity had any clue who Floyd Landis is.

Also, world-class cycling's complicated scoring system, plus the seemingly traditional free pass the leader gets on the race's final day, confuse people who only pay attention to the sport once a year.

Some will say that Landis' feat is tarnished because nine riders, including pre-race favorites Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso, were not allowed to compete after they were implicated in a doping investigation.

But to undertake the Tour de France's 2,270-mile grind through the Pyrenees and the Alps and emerge on the other end with the yellow jersey requires no apology by anyone who does it.

If Landis' ride to Paris didn't capture the imagination of American sports fans, at least not in the same manner that Tiger Woods' emotional win did at the British Open, it is hardly his fault. Besides, once more, the French had to bear a flag-waving American on their victory stand.

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