The scene has defined America: A strong-willed son confronts his parents, telling them he is moving west, striking off into the wilderness to seek his destiny, perhaps never to return. Yet never in the history of the republic has that scene been acted out like it was in October 1995, on a large family farm in Lancaster County, Pa. Floyd Landis, a thin young Mennonite with ginger hair and the thick hands of a bricklayer, informed his parents that he was off to California to chase his dream. What he wanted more than anything, Floyd told them, was to race bicycles. That was his destiny.
Paul and Arlene Landis had raised their boy to reject the trappings of the modern world. They believed that he was damning himself to the fires of hell, and told him so. He went anyway. "It wasn't easy to leave," Landis explains. "I loved them, and I didn't want to hurt them."
We are seated in a Barcelona cafe. His lunch is a 12-inch baguette and a large coffee with milk, both of which he is too polite to touch until the interview is over. Landis is famous in Europe. Passersby swivel their heads in recognition as he softly concludes the story: "I didn't leave because they were bad parents or I hated them. I left because I wanted something else."
This July 23, that "something else" may come to pass. A decade later after leaving home, Landis is a favorite to win the Tour de France, which begins Saturday. So far this year he has won the Tour of California, Paris-Nice and Tour de Georgia stage races.
At 30, he is coming into his competitive prime as an endurance athlete, and is the undisputed leader of the powerhouse Phonak team, sponsored by a Swiss hearing-aid company. If Landis can avoid crashing, mental letdown, media pressure, the predations of his European rivals and the common cold during the Tour's 2,237 miles and 21 days of racing, he may stand atop the podium in the Place de la Concorde sometime around 7 p.m. on that third Sunday in July.
"He had to come to California to get to where he is now," says his wife, Amber. "He couldn't do it there."
Many see a rebellious touch in Landis' choice of residences. "You've got one of the greatest cyclists in the world, a man who could buy a house anywhere he wants," marvels Matt Ford, owner of Rock N' Road Cyclery in Mission Viejo, "and he lives in the 909."
When Landis first arrived in California he lived in Orange County and was a regular visitor to Ford's shop. "You'd see him out riding the canyons, and he'd come along and ride with you. He'd just start talking, being real humble. Most guys, they have to let you know something about themselves: which race they just won, how many miles they're training, who their sponsors are, if they have them. Something. But Floyd never did that."
Landis' cycling career began in Pennsylvania, pedaling his bike to the local fishing spot. He trained seriously, riding at night when his father loaded him up on chores during the day, wearing sweatpants during races because bike shorts were against his faith. In 1995, his first year in California, he raced mountain bikes, and was voted rookie of the year by the National Off-Road Bicycling Assn. Landis trained on the roads and trails familiar to anyone who has biked in south Orange County: Santiago Canyon, Saddleback Mountain, Whiting Ranch--pretty much anywhere there was good riding.
Landis later moved to San Diego, jumping from the fading mountain-bike scene to road racing. It was there that he met a funny, dynamic single mom named Amber Basile. They wed in 2001, just as his career was beginning to skyrocket. The following year Landis made the big time, moving from the financially troubled Mercury Cycling Team to Lance Armstrong's vaunted U.S. Postal squad. Such were his considerable talents that Armstrong chose Landis to ride alongside him three times in the Tour de France.
Landis, though glad to be on such a high-profile team, earned a reputation for questioning authority--a distinct no-no in Postal's high-control world, where the edicts of Armstrong and team director Johan Bruyneel carried the heft of biblical writ. On the bike, Landis was a team player. Off the bike, he chafed at taking orders.
Seven years after leaving Lancaster County, he found himself living a life that felt much like the one he'd left behind. He yearned for independence once again. "I've always been forced to make my own decisions," he says. "That's always been a part of my conflict with Johan and Lance. Lots of times you get so tired you don't know what to do, but that's a choice I want to make."
One month after the 2004 Tour, Landis left for Phonak.