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.Powered by Sidelines