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Tour de France Floyd Landis profile, July 24, 2006.
Rebellion, a self-effacing hero and redemption; when's the movie out?
While the Champs Elysees was packed with spectators enjoying an American win the Tour for the eighth consecutive year, a far more modest celebration was taking place at the Pennsylvania family home of the victor Floyd Landis. John Kenny reviews an amazing sporting achievement and the journey to success of a modest, determined and tough competitor.
Modesty, rebellion and heroic exploits, there's got to be a movie in the Floyd 2006 Tour story. There is so much colour in this narrative that it's hard to know where to start. His Tour win is a story in itself, but it's almost a sub-plot to the other elements of the drama. There's Landis' stunning ride back into contention on stage 17 that has been compared to the exploits of the great Eddy Merckx, there's the humble Mennonite upbringing that seems to be completely at odds with the colour and movement of the Tour and then there's the hip.
Landis was raised as a conservative Mennonite and it's tempting to draw comparisons to the Amish, but the communities are separate. Mennonites maintain conservative dress and have regulations on television and radio, although they accept most other technology, including bicycles. However, the lurid green Lycra clothing of the Phonak squad would assuredly not normally be considered modest attire.
When someone is as talented at a given sport as Landis, it is difficult to hold back the exploration of the boundaries of their gift. "That boy put us through the mill growing up," Landis' mother, Arlene told the New York Times, "Just doing the normal thing, that's boring to Floyd." Mennonite children who test the boundaries of their communities are said to 'stretch' their parents. For Floyd's parents this probably started to occur when he started participating in mountain bike races, some of which were scheduled on Sundays, when vigorous exercise is forbidden.
Something had to give and Landis' parents delivered an ultimatum, as reported in the New York Times, "They basically told me I was going to hell if I kept racing my bike," Landis said. "I love my parents, and they're good people, but that didn't make any sense to me. So I knew I had to get out, and the bike was the way."
There may have been career choices for their son that were more appealing to Mrs Landis, but she is nonetheless now supportive of her son's endeavours in cycling. "I just got here in time to see Floyd win the time trial," said Arlene Landis at the tour of Georgia. "When Floyd does well we love to read about him in all of the magazines. Every time we see an article about him we keep it. Now we have a nice collection of stories about Floyd kept from over the years."
"Floyd began cycling when he was a younger because we did a lot of cycling as a family especially on Sundays. But, he really liked to mountain bike more when he was younger," Arlene said.
There's a tremendous sense of rebellion about Landis, not just because he is a Mennonite who resisted his family's wishes. The night before his epic ride on stage 17 he had a beer. People have beer every day, it's a mundane daily custom for most of us, but Landis is a Tour athlete - men who supposedly measure every gram of fuel that they put into their bodies. Every Joe Six-pack around the world took heart.
Just when you think that all of the Lazarus-style stories have been told in cycling - Lance Armstrong and Greg Lemond survived cancer and being shot respectively to win a total of ten Tours between them - along comes another that stuns and amazes cycling fans and the wider public as one. The hip is such an essential piece of machinery for a cyclist, to suffer arthritis in that joint and ride the Tour sounds jarringly painful in the extreme. But to win the Tour with such an injury beggars belief.
Landis describes the pain thus, "If I hadn't had a bicycle-racing career, I would have had the hip replaced two years ago because I don't really want to deal with the pain," Landis said. "It's bad, it's grinding, it's bone rubbing on bone. Sometimes it's a sharp pain. When I pedal and walk, it comes and goes, but mostly it's an ache, like an arthritis pain. It aches down my leg into my knee. The morning is the best time, it doesn't hurt too much. But when I walk it hurts, when I ride it hurts. Most of the time it doesn't keep me awake, but there are nights that it does."
Landis' trainer, Allen Lim, PhD said this of about the hip injury, "It is everything. The hip rules the day. If the hip is good, he can go well but if it is not so good, then it affects him. But I will say is that he is one tough dude. The one thing that injury has given him is a whole lot of mental toughness…the pain of cycling is nothing. He is one strong character."
It's also the modesty of Landis that is disarming. This character trait could be due to his upbringing, something that is innate or a combination of both. The 'cauliflower' hip joint and 'bone death' descriptions in the media came long after the injury was being treated. For a public and media contingent that is inured to excuses for poor performance from athletes this was very appealing and spoke volumes about Landis. For 20 months Landis kept his secret. The cynical may say that this was a ploy that denied his rivals any insider information that they could use against him on the road, but he also kept the secret from his team mates and the media, confiding in only a few close friends and doctors, swearing them all to secrecy, as Landis told the NY times, "In retrospect, I probably should have been more open. But I didn't want anybody thinking I was damaged goods. And I had this idea that if I could just keep riding, everything would be okay," he said. Amazingly, he was able to fool the Phonak team doctors as well, at a time when he could barely walk.
The comparisons to Merckx started to come after the hip story broke. Merckx finished runner-up in the Tour after suffering a broken jaw in 1975. Merckx also received a mighty windfall after betting 100 euros on Landis would still win the Tour after he spectacularly cracked on stage 16, losing ten minutes to his rivals, getting odds of 75 to one. The most salient association with Merckx was his heroic ride back into contention on stage 17. Cyclingnews' Shane Stokes made this observation, "During the 1969 Tour, en route to his first Tour overall win, the Belgian attacked on the climb of the Tourmalet, a full 130 kilometres from the end of the stage and, defying instructions from his team manager to ease back, powered on alone to reach the finish in line in Mourenx-Ville-Nouvelle a full eight minutes clear of the next rider." Other than defying instructions - Landis' team car was in constant attendance during his breakaway - the story sounds uncannily familiar.
Merckx himself had a hand in Landis' effort - something that he undoubtedly kept from his bookmaker. "I just told the guys [the Phonak team] that the battle was lost, but that the war isn't over until the peloton arrives in Paris," he explained. "It was great to see how Landis reacted." And a nice little earner for Eddy as well.
To his great credit, he faced the media after his fall from grace on the stage. He refused to blame the hip injury for his poor showing stating simply that the hip injury was not a factor and he did not search for any other excuses. Cyclingnews' Anthony Tan was at the stage 16 post-stage press conference, "It takes a big man to take the maillot jaune, but perhaps an even bigger one to emerge from his hotel room to face the press after having the golden fleece so cruelly taken away from him," said Tan. Landis was amazingly positive after having taken a beating from his rivals, but was amazingly upbeat, "Yeah. It's another hard day; things change. You saw [Oscar] Pereiro was 30 minutes down, now he's in the lead again. I don't expect to win the Tour at this point; it's not easy to get back eight minutes. But I'll keep fighting - it's not over yet," he said. After losing ten minutes on the stage, he was surely out of contention. He was out of the running if Eddy Merck's bookmaker is any judge of form. Landis himself (and the odd punter) had not given up hope.
The word 'hero' should be reserved for people who are actually making a difference, curing cancer or throwing themselves on grenades to save their comrades - that type of thing. However, it was tempting throw the term around after stage 17 of the Tour. The ultimate redemption of our hero in this narrative comes at this point. Landis motored across to the first break of the day and continued to take virtually all of the time back that he needed to put himself back into yellow. All that remained was this story's denouement, a solid time trial to put him back in yellow and then victory confirmation in Paris.
This Tour began amid the controversy of the Operacion Puerto drugs scandal. Four of the top favourites were either withdrawn by their teams or their teams couldn't start the race. The character and exploits of Floyd Landis put the race back onto the back pages for all the right reasons and without the word 'drugs' appearing in the headlines. The Mennonite farm boy with the humble beginnings highlighted why people are drawn to the Tour and to sport in general. Quite simply, he helped deliver the most exciting Tour in years.
Follow the ups and downs of Floyd Landis' Tour journey in this giant pictorial examination.
Cyclingnews' Floyd Landis archive
22, 2006 - Almost there...
The Floyd Landis diary: Hangin' in there