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Landis, field face moment of truth in brutal Alps
GAP, France -- Floyd Landis knows the Alps well -- he sweated up enough steep mountain climbs to help teammate Lance Armstrong clinch three of his seven Tour de France wins.
Today, however, Landis will be doing it for himself.
"I always believed I could do it from the beginning," said Landis, who trails overall leader Oscar Pereiro by 1 minute, 29 seconds. "I've proved I'm strong enough to win the Tour."
By the end of today's 15th stage, which winds through 21 sharp bends to finish at the summit of the famed L'Alpe d'Huez, the Phonak team leader will have a clearer idea if he has what it takes.
But then come two more grueling mountain stages in the Alps as one of the most unpredictable Tours in years enters its final week.
"My objective is to get to [Saturday's] time trial without losing too much time," Landis said Monday during a rest day in Gap. "I'm very confident in my time-trialing ability."
He argues it's still too early to worry about the yellow jersey, which he wore two days last week.
"I have to stay focused on the big picture, rather than think of living the moment," he said. "That wouldn't be wise."
With Armstrong retired and favorites such as Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso out on suspicion of doping, a number of riders are contending for the coveted yellow jersey, all the way down to 11th-place Yaroslav Popovych of Discovery Channel who trails by 5:44.
It's a far cry from the Armstrong era, when Postal/Discovery Channel patrolled the mountains, chasing down and swallowing up all rivals.
Landis, who sits 8 seconds ahead of Cyril Dessel of France, is confident Pereiro will wilt in the Alps and considers Denis Menchov his main rival.
"Menchov is the guy I have to follow the most," said Landis of the Rabobank rider, who's 61 seconds behind in fourth place.
Pereiro's Illes Balears teammate Alejando Valverde, whose Tour ended on stage 3 with a broken right collarbone, acknowledges the mountains can end a cyclist's race.
"We will see how [Pereiro] goes through the Alps," Valverde said.
Today's stage features a mammoth climb -- Col d'Izoard, a nine-mile ascent at a 7-percent gradient. It's known as "hors categorie," or beyond classification, because it is so difficult.
Riders face six more punishing climbs -- rated as beyond classification or category 1 -- on Wednesday and Thursday.
The Tour hits its summit Wednesday at the 8,681-feet Col du Galibier. Thursday's 17th stage ends with a tortuous climb up the Col de Joux-Plane, which has an 8.5 percent gradient, and a hair-raising steep descent of nearly 0.6 miles to the finish line at Morzine.
Then, Landis hopes, he can clinch Saturday's time trial and freewheel on the Paris' Champs Elysees -- just like Armstrong.