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Floyd Landis — You Like My Socks?

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In Daniel Coyle’s book Lance Armstrong’s War, the author devotes a chapter to Floyd Landis entitled “The Book of Floyd.” The book provides an interesting character study of the former Mennonite from Pennsylvania.

Much has been made of Landis’ Mennonite roots, roots that provide a dose of Old Testament Biblical prophecy to combine with elements of Greek tragedy and possible Faustian bargains. When fifteen-year-old Floyd Landis become enamored of the bicycle as a means to escape the narrow strictures of farm and church, his parents gave him a choice. He could stay at home and lead a good Mennonite life or go straight to hell as a bike racer. His father gave him an unending list of chores to do that included digging out the bottom of the outhouse in midwinter. This was done so young Landis would have no time to train. He ended up riding his bike through the fields and hills in the middle of the night, even in the ice and snow of midwinter. He told friends that one day he would win the Tour de France.

Landis started as a mountain bike racer and eventually left the farm for good as a twenty-year-old. Stories abound as to both Landis’ skill and an intensity that bordered on what some would call insanity. In one race, beset with mechanical problems, he hurtled downhill on a bicycle with no tires, running only on the metal rims, passing startled racers with sparks flying.

In a twenty-four hour team relay mountain bike race, Landis trashed his front wheel at the top of a mountain. Unlike the Tour de France, there are no sag vehicles and mechanics immediately at hand. Landis’ solution was to ride a wheelie all the way down the mountain through all the rough terrain. In fact, he had been known to ride wheelies all the way up a mountain with no hands.

When Landis reached California as a twenty-year-old, he was indeed a “stranger in a strange land,” a child in the ways of the world. After his arrival, people were forced to take notice of his talent. When he was tested for VO2 max, a measure of lung capacity and ability to process oxygen, Landis tested one point higher than Miguel Indurain, the five time winner of the Tour.

When Landis arrived for his first road race, it was a race open to all categories. Since he had no history of road racing and no racing license, he was relegated to start with the Category 5 racers at the end of the pack. He had also arrived wearing the visored helmet of a mountain biker, a garish jersey, and bright argyle socks pulled high. He was trying to tweak the sensibilities of the snobbish road racers. He had to endure merciless ribbing about his attire. He constantly warned the other riders that they shouldn’t make him mad. As the race started Landis slowly made his way toward the front of the pack, sometimes having to ride in the dirt at the side of the road in order to pass the mass of the peloton. As he arrived at the front he made an announcement.

“If there is anyone here who can stay with me, I will buy you dinner.”

Everyone laughed at the garish fool. He warned them again in the spirit of an Old Testament prophet, “You shouldn’t laugh, because that makes me angry. And if you make me angry, then I’m going to blow you all up.”

As Landis pressed the pace and the others began to strain, he yelled out, “You like my socks? How do you like them now?”

He won the race by fifteen minutes despite having to stop and fix a flat tire.

We fast forward to the 2006 Tour de France in the aftermath of stage 16. Days earlier Landis had announced that he would soon have his hip replaced. His right hip was held together by three four-inch long titanium screws through the femoral neck. During Stage 16 the race had traversed two beyond category climbs. In the course of pursuing a long breakaway, Landis, the Tour leader, had missed connections with his team car to take on food and drink. In the course of a mountain stage like Stage 16, a rider needs to take in about 10,000 calories. On the final climb of La Toussuire, Landis “bonked,” totally run out of fuel, and finished over ten minutes behind the winner. He was now over eight minutes behind the new leader, with only three meaningful stages left.

Facts desert us here, for at this point we can’t really know what happened. We can only ask questions. Did Mephistopheles appear to make an offer? Landis had worked since he was fifteen to reach this summit of leading the Tour de France. He had risked his eternal soul in the pursuit of what his parents, community, and religion had damned. By all reports Landis is a pretty black and white sort of guy, biblical in his judgment of many of the ways of the world. His is not the temperament to undergo long-term doping. But what if Mephistopheles tells him, “Just this once. This may be the last time you have the chance. This is your dream and you just may have to sell your soul to save your soul.”

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If he doesn’t try enhancement his dream is gone. He had been humiliated on La Toussuire. What a laughable thing. He had forgotten to eat, to drink. The basics. He had come so far to be cast down into this pit of ridicule, this hell, still being laughed at for his socks. If he accepted this offer he might still win, saved from laughter by selling his soul.

The next morning Landis told his trainer, “I’m going to go ape shit on their heads.”

I wonder if, as Landis came to the end of his fabled breakaway on Stage 17 into Morzine, he didn’t yell out in his mind, “You like my socks? How do you like them now?” Were sparks flying from his wheels?

If he made the deal, he can’t tell us. It would make his father right. It’s all hell you know, damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

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About John Spivey

  • duane

    Damn, John. That’s some fine writing there. Fascinating topic, too. Well, not really — I mean about the “fascinating topic.” I’m not much interested in athletes, but you made it interesting nevertheless.

  • Cathleen

    I’ve seen some interesting comments on blog sites where people insist it makes no sense for Floyd Landis to cheat, therefore he could not have cheated. On the contrary, Mr. Spivey pointed out Floyd Landis’ family disagreement with his choice of life goals. What incredible resistance to overcome just to be a success in the eyes of one’s own family.

    In my opinion, one of the most powerful reason in the world that could motivate a person to cheat – the overwhelming need to step out of the shadow of family, especially doubting family.

    The need to prove other people wrong consumes any memory of the need to accomplish a task for the sake of the glory of the task. A formula for tragedy in our time.

  • Anne

    I cling to the idea of Floyd’s innocence. The problem I have with your temptation/family explanantion is that the testosterone patch does nothing if only used for one day. I still hope there will be some topical cream explanation or some way the other endocrine drugs (cortisol, hyperthyroid meds) metabolized into what only appeared as synthetic testosterone. He doesn’t seem like the cheater type and he would have known he would have been tested. I still believe him…

  • I have to say that I just don’t know. I certainly don’t have enough information. If you read the epilogue to Lance Armstrong’s War pertaining to Tyler Hamilton’s own doping problems, you would have your eyes opened to lab procedures. Two labs tested his results and couldn’t come up with the same profile. One of them didn’t even have the his correct blood type listed, yet the results were accepted by the cycling authorities. Not exactly trust inspiring. For many reasons I would like Floyd to be innocent, but I can’t make him innocent. Stage 17 was a helluva ride. It left me skaking with excitement.

  • JD

    My husband’s family is Mennonite (he’s not), and he and I are both cyclists. We know about distance riding and about bonking. We have also followed Floyd Landis for much of his career. We believe in Floyd, primarily because we believe nothing would be worth losing the respect of your family and poisoning your entire future. And knowing you would be tested as stage winner would give you some incentive to lose the stage at the least if you’d doped, would it not?

    You will find in the history of the Tour any number of stories as remarkable as Stage 17 of this year. That just happened to be the most recent the press has any memory of. And the media is only too happy to contribute to the current frenzy, anything for more blood in the water. They thrive on this stuff, investigative reporting of facts is secondary. Tell me more about the lab who did Landis’ test, their connections/biases, and their handling of Lance Armstrong’s test.

    The behaviour of WADA officials in leaking info in this case has been deplorable. If you look into the past history of WADA’s Dick Pound you will find story after story of leaked accusations against major athletes, in violation of WADA’s own guidelines. He’s trying to build a career in ripping up the lives of others, without giving due process and fairness a chance to work. If the athletes are guilty that’s one thing. But public crucification is not a sport I find either uplifting or entertaining.

  • Ziggy

    Excellent article about the dilemma that cyclists as well as other sportsmen face today. I´d like to add that there´s more at stake than just the reputation in the family: to be the guy that did it (and will never have job problems again), or the guy somewhere lost in the ranks. Now he´s the guy who probably never gets a job again in cycling. So going back to the farm is the only choice.

    Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. That´s really the essence.

  • James Morehouse

    I’ve been following this since the beginning, that is, I’ve been following cycling since 1967 and have been a competitive road cyclist (I still ride). I’ve read so many moronic “stories” by so called journalists who know nothing of the sport, much less any of the facts of this case that I could puke. So far, none of this makes sense. The key thing is that a one time use of testosterone has no useful effect, and he has been clean in every other test. Something doesn’t add up. Thank you for writing a piece with some insight, intelligence, and sympathy.

  • Paulette Bishop

    Well, I’m neither a biker or a Mennonite – but I am logical and as so many others have said, it’s not logical for Floyd to risk everything for one ride/race. I believe Floyd, but most of all, everyone deserves “innocent until proven guilty”. I loved your article – but I’m very confused about why the press doesn’t mention that his testosterone was in the NORMAL range, just the T/E ratio was high. Doesn’t the press have a responsiblity to report accurately?

  • If Floyd did indeed do it to himself, I’m positing it as a despairing, drunken, irrational act where logic doesn’t apply.

    I still don’t rule out sabotage.

  • Mounain biker in the OC

    Like millions of other cycling fans, I watched Landis rise out of the Sisyphean depths of stage 16 to make tour history. I’ve read the Coyle book, and Landis’s comeback doesn’t seem so out of character considering his reaction to Bruyneel and Armstrong for placing 21st during a time trial while riding with Postal (read the book for context).

    I’m with Bob Roll on this one.

    Floyd is no tragic hero in the Marlowe or Miller sense. But WADA sure is trying to make him Godot.

  • JD

    Found this about the French lab doing Landis’ test. They have quite a history (in addition to the controversy over their testing of Armstrong from the 1999 Tour):

    This is from Mountain Zone News in 1998:
    Mountain Bike Champion Paola Pezzo Cleared of Drug Charges Champion to Retain World Cup, Gold Medal and World Championship

    Paola Pezzo, mountain biking’s current World and Olympic cross-country Champion, has been cleared of charges she took steroids. Pezzo had tested positive for the presence of Nandrolene following her victory in the Annecy, FRA World Cup finals in September.

    Yesterday, the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI), decided not to pursue Pezzo’s positive test for Nandrolene due to “too many mitigating circumstances,” including the procedures used in the testing by Chatenay-Malabry lab in Paris; the fact that the steroid in question is produced naturally in female athletes; and, the recent clearing of Dutch cyclist Yvonne Brunen under the same circumstances.”

    more: cyclingnews.com

  • sal m

    in the above comment the data provided is from an isolated incident that occured 8 years ago. and the fecklessness of the italians shouldn’t be used as an indication that the lab did anything wrong. nandrolone just doesn’t show up. plus if this was a case where the lab was involved in a fraud, you would think the country of the victim of this fraud would take steps to see that justice was done.

    also, people keep bringing up that this same lab tested lance armstrong’s 5 or 6 year old sample and make it sound like the lab made a mistake with the test.

    the issue with this lab and the armstrong test revolves around the ethics of testing an old sample and the techniques that were used to determine that EPO was present.

    when dealing with the issue of drug testing, any lab that is involved in this endeavor is going to be touched by controversy due to the nature of what they are dealing with. critics of these labs and their testing procedures make it sound as if these labs have been designed simply to frame athletes.

  • In this day and age when too many athleates are being let off by their Olympic committees even after failing drug tests, because of a technicality, so that supposed clean runners end up in the arean besides some guy everyone knew tested positive, but had a good lawyer, the question shoudln’t be why would someone cheat, but more why wouldn’t they?

    They can play the victim card and make the people who are trying their best to really get rid of drug users in sport evil villians. Dick Pound comes off as an obnoxious cretin there’s no doubt about it, but you know what I want to know is how is he worse than Marion Jones looking like a linebacker?

    We in Canada bear the shame of having the first ever big time athleate striped of a gold medal for dopping offences – that the whole field was probably pumped to the gills doesn’t matter Ben Jonnson was caught.

    We basically shut down our track program that year and held an inquiry into doping in sport in our country. We didn’t cover up the dirt under the carpet and appeal the results or blame the testers, or hire lawyers or anything else that everybody does these days when accused of doping.

    No other country has done the equivalent, except for the show trials at congress of major league baseball stars where nobody said anything about anything. I have to wonder why? Canada isn’t what I’d call exmplorary, we’re not even a world power in anything anymore, can’t even win in hockey for goodness sake.

    If the drug labs are not to be believed or are going to be disputed by every whinney cheater that get’s busted for sucking back something they know is illeagal but think they are going to beat the system anyway why bother testing at all?

    In answer to the question why would he do it if he knew that he would be tested? The prisons of the world are full of people who were sure they were going to get away with it.

    You do the crime, you do the time and shut up about it.

    Richard Marcus

  • Jd

    Very easy to demonize the athletes. But they are as entitled as anyone else to fair treatment and due process. There is no justification whatsoever for wada not following their own rules.

  • The lab is simply that–the lab. It should not be the court. To be complete, the B samples from before and after the 17th stage need to be tested for the presence of non-Floyd testosterone. If it is not present before, then it should show a natural degradation curve in the tests for the last two stages if he indeed doped for the 17th stage. If it is not present in the last two tests, then the lab has some explaining. This is what is required for a complete case to be built. Till then we are stuck with everyone just jumping out there with their personal opinions. Crime labs here in the US have been known to skew results, even with matching fingerprints and DNA.

    Most of the time we project what we want to see, whether to see a hero or to find a scapegoat for our own frustrated inner sense of justice. At the moment Floyd’s life is ruined without due process. Whether Floyd is guilty or not, his father was correct. Cycling did lead Floyd to hell. It’s amazing about self-fulfilling prophecies. I personally don’t want to have a part in creating that hell for Floyd, or anyone else for that matter. Do you? Why?

  • Anne

    Finally–Lance Armstrong comes to Floyd’s defense! I’d say it’s about time. Glad he stood up for him.

  • JD

    More sadness. Landis’ father-in-law has committed suicide in California. Apparently he was the one who introduced Floyd to his wife Amber, they were best man at each other’s weddings. Too much for one month, let alone one year.

  • I read about it this morning. It is deeply sad, tragedy compounded by tragedy. Whether he is guilty or not, he is a fellow human being who is suffering a great deal of pain at this time. I wish there was something I could do to help alleviate that, but of course there isn’t. It would be good to put personal judgments aside and simply wish him well.


  • Anne

    I feel incredibly sad for the Landis family. I wish our society wasn’t so careless with people’s feelings. Whatever the reason for this tragedy, I am sorry Mr. Witt had to be subjected to the condemnation of his very close friend and son-in-law.