Cycle Heroes February 22, 2010

Cycling Hall of Infamy - Floyd Landis

Floyd Landis, once champion cyclist and now full-time figure of ridicule and occasional cyclist, continues to make headline news, most recently this week as a French court issued an arrest warrant for the man who was stripped of the 2006 Tour de France. It is alleged he was responsible for hacking into an anti-doping laboratory computer.

Landis can probably easily circumvent this warrant simply by avoiding France for the remainder of his years, but if he fancies a spring break kayaking down the Dordogne, it might be worth following the story as, so far, the American’s list of reasons for failing a doping test nearly four years ago is long and frequently hilarious.

Of course, the mockery that cases such as Landis’ have made of a great sport are no laughing matter, but this saga has long since transcended the boundaries of cycling alone, with cameo appearances from Robin Williams, our friend Greg LeMond, David Letterman, and Larry King, among others, in the story that follows. The story of Floyd Landis though, starts plenty before 2006, and is one of an exceptionally talented cyclist.

Landis was born in October 1975 in Farmersville in West Earl Township, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, the eldest son of Paul and Arlene Landis. Young Floyd caught the cycling bug whilst fishing with his friend and, much to the chagrin of his father, went in search of the local cycle racing scene, determined to ride in a local race. Forbidden by his Mennonite religion, named after the teachings and tradition of Menno Simons, from wearing shorts, Landis competed in “sweatpants”. And won. Landis continued to rack up the wins, the achievement all the more impressive as he was also battling his father’s displeasure with his son’s chosen pursuit. This resulted in Floyd being burdened with extra household chores during the day, but such was his dedication he snuck out of the house at night to train in the freezing cold.

Landis was predominantly a mountain biker in these early years, and became junior national champion in 1993 and moving to Southern California at age 20 with the intention of training as a mountain biker on a full-time basis. It became apparent, however, that his style was more suited to road cycling, and he switched codes in 1999. Floyd’s robustness was already apparent, finishing one race only on his rims, and he had allegedly told friends he would win the Tour de France before moving to road cycling. Lance Armstrong helped to accelerate his fellow American toward achieving that ambition, spotting and recruiting him to his U.S. Postal team and choosing Landis to ride alongside him in Armstrong’s consecutive Tour de France victories between 2002 and 2004, all the more remarkable considering Landis broke a hip in 2003. Landis’ role was frequently to break the pack by storming the mountain stages prior to Armstrong making his move. Cycling nut Robin Williams, star of such films as Death To Smoochy and Licence To Wed, thought it necessary to burden Landis with the slightly uncouth moniker “Mofo of the Mountains” after an extraordinary effort on the 17th stage of the 2004 tour, where Floyd put in an astonishing show of strength to lead Armstrong and his rivals over the final climb. It would be Landis’ final Tour de France as part of the US Postal team, leaving later that year to join up to take up a better contract offer from the Phonak team, for whom he would achieve his highest finish overall classification to date in the 2005 Tour de France.

And so, to 2006. Landis picked up victories in the Tour of California and the Paris-Nice stage races, before triumphing in the Tour de Georgia, and was in good form ahead of the Tour de France. The trivial details of the race itself are that Landis won, overtaking Óscar Pereiro on the Stage 19 time trial to be crowned the 2006 Tour de France winner. That he did so was almost entirely down to a barnstorming, existing-hip-injury-defying performance on the 17th stage during which Landis recovered the significant time he lost during a disastrous 16th, finishing it with just a half minute deficit from the yellow jersey. The performance not only defied popular logic, it was also unusual in the sense that Landis effectively rode it solo, passing his entire team on his way to victory. If nothing else, the scarcity of such incidences would be no friend of Landis during the controversies that followed.

So, Landis could revel in the glory of being the champion. For four days. On July 27th, a urine sample provided by Floyd and analysed by the good people at the French government's anti-doping clinical laboratory, the National Laboratory for Doping Detection (LNDD), was announced to have been returned as positive by the Phonak team. The reason for the positive test was “an unusually high ratio of the hormone testosterone to the hormone epitestosterone (T/E ratio)”, following the aforementioned stage 17 (the ratio was later revealed to be 11:1 by Landis’ physician; the maximum allowed was 4:1) as well as testing positive for the banned synthetic testosterone. Phonak took the position that Landis would be dismissed should his backup sample confirm the failure; it duly did, and the American found himself unemployed and suspended from professional cycling. Landis took it on the chin and everyone got on with their lives.

Just kidding. Here is a whistle-stop tour of the events that followed from August 2006 (the order may not be strictly correct): Landis claims the synthetic testosterone was naturally created by his own organ and he would prove as such; this theory is ridiculed; Landis blames whiskey for his unusual results, and is ridiculed, then decides it isn’t whiskey and blames Spanish lawyers for coming up with the theory; David Letterman features the "Top 10 Floyd Landis Excuses" on his show, Landis appears on ‘Larry King Live’ maintaining his innocence and gains support from Lance Armstrong and no support from Greg LeMond. Landis then claims the results were improperly released by the UCI, the UCI disagrees; Landis’ attorney announces it will formally contest the case due to inconsistencies in the way Floyd’s samples were handled; Landis asks the USADA to drop the charges against him because his samples did not meet the WADA criteria for a doping offence, the USADA decide not to. By a 2:1 margin an arbitration panel uphold Landis’ guilty verdict and the American is formally stripped of his title and banned from professional cycling for two years; the Phonak team disbands. Landis appeals to the Court of Arbitration for Sport; the Court of Arbitration for Sport uphold the ruling; Landis goes to the US Federal Court and avoids paying “costs” but a settlement regarding the conclusion of litigation is reached.

This brings us nicely to April 14th, 2009, when the hacks at French newspaper L’Express reported that the systems at the French National Laboratory for Doping Detection had been hacked and the information therein obtained had been sent to a Canadian laboratory from a computer registered to Floyd Landis’ former coach, Arnie Baker. Come the summer of 2009, it was announced that "no evidence has surfaced to connect Mr. Landis or Dr. Baker to the hacking, and each has denied any involvement" and that was that until the last couple of weeks, when a French judge issued the arrest warrant for Landis.

Landis’ story seems set to run and run. Everything that has come to pass since Landis rode along the Champs-Élysées in 2006 has done incalculable and unforgiveable damage to the sport and to the reputations of many involved with Landis and the Phonak team. If Landis is innocent, as he still claims, the attempts of the American and his advisors to prove this have been catastrophically inept, but perhaps the most pertinent detail in this sorry tale is that Landis was, and is, a cyclist of no little talent, who may well have won le Tour in without resorting to any of the alleged assistance.

The “Mofo of the Mountains” is now back in the professional saddle following the conclusion of his two year ban in January 2009, having ridden for the OUCH Team in the 2009 Tour of California and for the Sport Team in New Zealand’s Tour of Southland. 

Landis has written a book entitled “Positively False – The Real Story of How I Won the Tour de France”, if you fancy this story in a longer format from a different perspective. Or if you have a wonky table; the reviews are less than spectacular.



Edmonton Journal / Wikipedia / BBC Sport / Guardian Sport / Amazon

Thumbnail photo credit: Associated Press
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