Floyd Landis did the hard work early, taking a training ride in pounding rain, then rode a smart, conservative time trial Saturday afternoon from Le Creusot to Montceau les Mines.
He made sure not to skid into a curve or take a bump at full speed. Winning the final time trial of the Tour de France might have offered the French the "panache" they had criticized Landis for lacking, but then the rider from Pennsylvania who now calls Murrieta home wouldn't be the probable winner of the 2006 Tour de France.
Landis, 30, who has cycled over 2,000 miles the last three weeks with a right hip that will soon be replaced, took over the leader's yellow jersey Saturday with a controlled third-place finish in the 35.4-mile time trial. After starting the day 30 seconds behind leader Oscar Pereiro and 12 seconds behind Carlos Sastre, Landis finished the course in 1 hour 8 minutes 57 seconds, third best on the day but 1:29 better than Pereiro.
He is now 59 seconds ahead of 28-year-old Pereiro, who rides for Caisse d'Epargne, and 1:29 ahead of T-Mobile rider Andreas Kloeden of Germany. Sastre, another Spaniard who rides for CSC, the Danish team bankrolled by an El Segundo company, finished 19th in the time trial and is in fourth place.
Unless Landis has a race-ending crash or illness today, the Tour will have an American champion for the eighth consecutive year, filling the spot on the podium occupied by Lance Armstrong for the last seven. The only other American to win the century-old race is three-time champion Greg Lemond.
With a ride Thursday called "impossible" and "incredible," when he reversed a disastrous mountain ride into a triumphant solo climb that pulled him from 11th place to third, Landis may have rescued a Tour that started with an ugly drug scandal.
On the day before the three-week race began, the two favorites, Ivan Basso and 1997 champion Jan Ullrich, were sent off by their teams after being named in a Spanish drug investigation.
After trying to duck questions about the doping issues Saturday and responding to questions about whether his victory was tarnished by the missing favorites, Landis sighed. "None of us, in any way, got any satisfaction out of the fact they're not here," he said.
Landis, raised strictly by his Mennonite parents in rural eastern Pennsylvania, found that while his mountain bike made for great transportation, it also was a fine competitive instrument.
When his parents suggested the world of bike racing did not fit with the Mennonite world that rejects many modern ways, Landis moved to Southern California 11 years ago.
From mountain bikes he moved to road cycles. Landis became an Armstrong teammate until he felt constrained by the strictures of riding for Armstrong instead of himself. Landis left Armstrong's team two years ago and joined Phonak, a team in Switzerland sponsored by a company that sells hearing devices. Before the move, in 2003, Landis had fallen on a training ride and hurt his hip.
During the first week of this Tour, Landis revealed he needed hip replacement surgery.
Robbie Ventura, Landis' personal coach, said that no one will know the pain Landis has endured over the past two years, pain that has caused Landis to adjust his body position on the bike. "But Floyd always believed," Ventura said by phone after Saturday's stage. "He deserves to win this race."
By Saturday's first time check, Landis had passed Sastre and gained 10 seconds on Pereiro. By the second time check, Landis was the virtual leader. At the end, even though he didn't win the stage -- Ukraine's Serhiy Honchar took those honors -- Landis had accomplished his main goal: earning back the yellow jersey.
And he didn't need a spectacular time trial. Not after Thursday. Even Saturday most of the talk was of how Landis had left the field behind and rode alone across five mountains after being written off a day earlier.
"His performance on Stage 17 transcends cycling," Ventura said. "Any person, you don't even need to enjoy sports, understands what he did. It's the sort of thing that motivates people in everyday life. If you want something bad enough, you don't need anybody else believing in you."
Today, riders will take a more celebratory than competitive trip into Paris. It is custom that the overall leader is not challenged, and even though this race is close and has been filled with unusual events, "The race is over for us," Ventura said flatly. "Pereiro won't attack."
Jonathan Vaughters, a former Tour rider and present cycling coach, said, "It's etiquette not to attack. And while this sport is tough and ugly sometimes, it is filled with etiquette."
Saturday, Landis shared an emotional embrace with his wife, Amber. The two met after Landis moved to California. Amber was a single mother with a daughter. Landis was an introvert trying to find a way back to his family and also to the top of the cycling world.
Now Landis' parents watch the race on a friend's television and proudly talk about their son. Landis thanked them Saturday.