Stage 19: Landis on verge of Tour title, Honchar wins TT

Landis believes Merckx has been a huge inspiration and would love for him to hang around a few more years.  Credit: FRANCK FIFE/AFP/ Getty Images

Montceau-les-Mines, France (dpa) - American Floyd Landis all but won the championship of the 2006 Tour de France on Saturday, taking the lead in the overall standings with one stage to go.

Landis finished third in Saturday's 19th stage, a 57-kilometre race against the clock through the Burgundy countryside, but crossed the line 1 minute 29 seconds ahead of the former leader, Oscar Pereiro Sio of Spain.

With only Sunday's stage to Paris left, Landis now leads Pereiro by 59 seconds, with Germany's Andreas Kloeden in third place, 1 minute 29 seconds behind.

Saturday's stage was won by Ukrainian Serhiy Honchar, in a time of 1 hour 7 minutes 45 seconds, an average speed of 50.5 kph. The 36-year-old T-Mobile rider thereby won both of this Tour's time trials, the only two Tour stage wins of his career. FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty Images Floyd Landis rode himself into a yellow jersey during Saturday's time trial and is on the verge of his first Tour de France title, a remarkable achievement considering just two days ago he started the day more than eight minutes down.

Sunday's final stage is traditionally no more than a ceremonial parade into Paris and along the Champs Elysees, and usually ends in a mass sprint. So, barring accident or illness, Landis is virtually certain to be crowned Tour de France champion, the third American ever to win the world's most prestigious cycling event.

"This is one of the best days of my life," a beaming Landis said immediately after the stage. "I'm very honoured right now."

The 30-year-old Pennsylvania native singled out his Phonak teammates for praise.

"I gave it all I had and so did my team," Landis said. "I'm proud of the team and I'm proud of myself."

Asked if he would wait for the Tour to end before celebrating, Landis replied, "We're going to start celebrating as soon as I see the guys," referring to his team-mates.

Landis worked for three years as lieutenant to seven-time Tour champion Lance Armstrong, before moving over to the Swiss Phonak team last year.

He said that working for Armstrong helped him a great deal.

"I was lucky to be part of Lance's team," he said. "I finished ninth in the Tour in my last year with him."

Landis said there was a great deal of stress before the start of Saturday's stage, and admitted that he was not in his best form. "But it was good enough," he said.

The victory, if it is confirmed Sunday, will be particularly important for Landis, since he has said that this may be his last Tour de France because he will be undergoing hip replacement surgery later in the year.

He suffers from a degenerative hip ailment that causes him constant pain, which makes his performance even more remarkable.

"I'm a person who works hard and never gives up," he said. "Other than that, I'm just like other people."

Landis started the stage trailing Pereiro by 30 seconds and another Spaniard, Carlos Sastre, by 18 seconds. But the time trial is a strength of Landis's, and he was favoured to take over the Tour lead.

The three riders were on the road at the same time, because they started within three-minute intervals. As the race progressed, Landis gradually but inexorably made up time on his rivals, and it was clear before he crossed the finish line that, barring a crash, he would take over the Tour lead.

The stage was a disaster for Sastre, who finished 20th, 4 minutes 42 seconds behind the winner, and slipped down to fourth place overall.

Stage 19: Top 10

1. Sergei Gontchar (Ukr), T-Mobile, 57km in 1:07:45
2. Andras Klden (G), T-Mobile, at 0:41
3. Floyd Landis (USA), Phonak, at 1:11
4. Oscar Pereiro Sio (Sp), Caisse d'Epargne-I.B., at 2:40
5. Sebastian Lang (G), Gerolsteiner, at 3:18
6. David Zabriskie (USA), CSC, at 3:35
7. Viatceslav Ekimov (Rus), Discovery Channel, at 03:41
8. Cadel Evans (Aus), Davitamon-Lotto, at 3:41
9. Bert Grabsch (G), Phonak, at 3:43
10. Damiano Cunego (I), Lampre, at 3:44

Stage 19: Complete results

Top 10 Overall after 19 stages

1. Floyd Landis (USA), Phonak
2. Oscar Pereiro Sio (Sp), Caisse d'Epargne-I.B., at 0:59
3. Andras Klden (G), T-Mobile, at 1:29
4. Carlos Sastre (Sp), CSC, at 3:13
5. Cadel Evans (Aus), Davitamon-Lotto, at 5:08
6. Denis Menchov (Rus), Rabobank, at 7:06
7. Cyril Dessel (F), Ag2r Prevoyance, at 8:41
8. Christophe Moreau (F), Ag2r Prevoyance, at 9:37
9. Haimar Zubeldia (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, at 12:05
10. Michael Rogers (Aus), T-Mobile, at 15:07

Stage 19: Complete overall standings

Stage 19: Category standings

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