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Now His Mennonite Parents Cheer Too

The devout family that once resisted Landis' idea of competing in cycling breaks with tradition to watch his Tour title ride on TV.

July 24, 2006|Kevin Van Valkenburg | Baltimore Sun

FARMERSVILLE, Pa. — To fully digest the story of cyclist Floyd Landis, to grasp how exactly it is that a 30-year-old man with chronic, stabbing pain in his right hip could have possibly won this year's Tour de France, one must start at the beginning.

One must travel through the seemingly endless green and gold cornfields of Lancaster County and cross over the muddy banks and murky waters of the Conestoga River.

Only then, arriving in this quiet town of barely 200 where Landis was raised, can a visitor truly appreciate how his family's Mennonite faith shaped his character and work ethic as a young man -- and frustrated him enough that he rebelled, moving across the country and pursuing his dream despite his parents' promise that he would face eternal damnation if he kept cycling.

Landis' mother, Arlene, is happy to talk about her son's career these days, and the atypical path he took to becoming one of the world's best cyclists. More than a decade has passed since Landis moved to California to take his shot at racing professionally, and though she concedes that it caused considerable strain at the time, any family tension has long since faded.

"He would say we butted heads often," Arlene Landis says of her son's childhood. "But when he was 20 years old, it was tough to tell him that he wasn't old enough to leave the nest. I just know that the Heavenly Father was watching over him."

She admits that she has even slipped over to a friend's house to watch the last hour of the Tour de France coverage on television, something that some of her more conservative Mennonite neighbors might consider heresy.

Mennonites belong to a branch of Christianity that follows the strict teachings of Jesus Christ; its members try to live a simple life to honor and glorify God. Most choose not to watch television or listen to the radio; most, though, have electricity, and many drive cars, own computers and wear standard clothes.

Most people in Farmersville are supportive of Landis.

"A lot of people are excited about him," says John Achenbach, who has lived in the area for more than 30 years and whose daughter went to school with Landis. "I think they feel like he's a pretty humble person and that they want to see someone from here do well."

On the edge of town, in front of the fire department, a sign comes as close to boasting as you'll find in these parts. It declares in plain, black capital letters that Farmersville is "HOME TOWN OF FLOYD LANDIS. TOUR DE FRANCE BIKE RACER. GO FLOYD."

During the race, at a weekly town auction where local residents turn out in larger numbers to bid on things such as tractors and homemade birdhouses, some wondered what a victory in the Tour de France might mean for the town.

"I guarantee if he wins this thing everyone's going to know where Farmersville is," John Hunter says. "But it feels good to hear about a local boy doing well."

Arlene Landis, a warm, outgoing woman who raised six children here with her husband, Paul, a truck driver, says she still gets the occasional disapproving glance from some of the town's residents, but most can't resist following her son's progress in some manner.

Landis, who was a part of Lance Armstrong's U.S. Postal team for several years, is in his second year as the lead rider for the Swiss team Phonak. Although it is difficult at times seeing him ride through intense pain, Arlene Landis knows there is no standing in the way of her son's determination.

"The Bible talks a lot about the great crowd of witnesses cheering us on in life," she says. "Spiritually, I choose to make that connection for Floyd when he is racing. In the gospels, Paul often uses the analogy of a race to illustrate perseverance. I kind of like that."

Landis has endured plenty of pain since he fractured his hip in a crash while training near his Murrieta, Calif., home in January 2003. The injury -- which Landis essentially kept secret from almost everyone, including his parents, until recently because he was concerned about being prevented from racing -- severed the blood supply to his hip bone and began a slow deterioration that doctors call osteoarthritis.

"I can't say that it has any effect on the way I race," Landis recently told reporters. "It's not easy to give it a number and say, 'This is how much it hurts.' Whatever happens, I do my best to try to focus on the race itself rather than my hip. And the race, in a way, is therapy for my hip because it consumes everything I think about."

Cycling is no stranger to stories of heroism and courage. By now, practically everyone, even non-cycling fans, can recite the basic facts that form the legend of Lance Armstrong, the Texan who nearly died of testicular cancer but recovered to win the Tour de France a record seven times. But Landis' journey to the steep slopes of the Pyrenees and the Alps has been almost as unlikely.

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