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Floyd Landis has nothing left to lose

The fallen cycling champion continues to plummet in the wake of this week's doping confession. His former supporters feel baffled and betrayed.

May 22, 2010|By Alan Zarembo

It took Floyd Landis more than half his life to reach the pinnacle of cycling: sipping champagne during a victory lap on the Champs-Elysees as winner of the Tour de France and heir apparent to Lance Armstrong.

His fall began four days later, when a drug test came back positive.

Four years after that, he is still falling.

Beaten down from a long, losing battle against the doping charge and failed efforts to revive a high-profile racing career, Landis has become a man who each day, it seems, has less to lose.

After four years of vehemently denying that he had ever used performance-enhancing drugs, he confessed last week to systemic doping during his prime racing years. It was standard practice on Armstrong's team, Landis alleged, and during long training rides, Armstrong himself had advised him on the best ways to cheat without getting caught. His about-face, he said, is an attempt to clear his conscience and clean up the sport for the next generation of riders.

But in a series of e-mail messages released last week by Armstrong's team, Landis, 34, comes across as a desperate man, jealous of Armstrong's star power and bitter that his current team could not even secure a place in the Amgen Tour of California, which concludes Sunday.

In an April 22 message, he complains to the race director about the "money that you leverage from small American teams" that "ends up deposited directly into Lance Armstrong's account as an appearance fee."

In another, sent May 6, Landis accuses Armstrong of "calling my close friends with allegations of alcoholism and insanity." He suggests that Armstrong seek help for his own "mental well-being."

Armstrong has responded coolly. "It's just our word against his, and we like our word," he said.

He dismissed Landis' allegations as another in a long history of efforts by his foes to tarnish his unprecedented seven consecutive victories in the Tour de France.

To be believed, Landis must convince people that, although he was lying before, he is telling the truth now.

Reasons to back him

Among professional cyclists, Landis was always something of an oddball.

Raised in eastern Pennsylvania in a family of devout Mennonites, he would sneak out of the house to ride after dark because his father, who thought cycling a worthless hobby, filled his days with chores. He often rode in sweat pants because he worried that God disliked shorts.

That upbringing, and a persona as an easygoing jokester, endeared him to fans.

"He always had an air of innocence about him," said Loren Mooney, the editor-in-chief of Bicycling Magazine.

There were other reasons to believe — or to want to believe — that Landis' 2006 victory in the Tour de France had been legitimate. He had ridden the race despite a crumbling hip joint, a painful injury that he hid from almost everybody until the competition was underway.

Later that year, he underwent surgery to replace it with an artificial joint.

Whereas some athletes caught doping quietly served suspensions and returned to competition, Landis waged the most aggressive battle ever by a U.S. athlete to clear his name.

He burned through his savings — more than $1 million — to pay his defense.

He drew on fans and friends to raise at least $600,000 more in donations to the Floyd Fairness Fund.

He hired Mooney to co-write a book, "Positively False: The Real Story of How I Won the Tour de France," which was part memoir and part indictment of an anti-doping system he deemed unfair to athletes. It briefly appeared on the New York Times bestseller list.

Landis spent the proceeds on his defense.

He was not interested in making deals. In 2007, he said he turned down an offer from U.S. anti-doping officials to reduce his penalty if he could provide incriminating evidence against Armstrong. His marriage crumbled under the strain of his fight, and he moved to a cabin in the San Jacinto Mountains.

To his believers, his "all-in" wager was proof of his innocence. How could a man who had sacrificed so much to defend himself be guilty?

After Landis was suspended from cycling for two years, a small group of vocal supporters remained.

Now, with his confession, they too may be gone.

"I knew Floyd for a long time, his wife, his stepdaughter," said Christopher Fortune, president of Saris Cycling Group, a former sponsor.

He said he felt like somebody who finds out a spouse has been cheating.

"How well do you know anybody?" Fortune said.

Landis and many people close to him did not respond to e-mail and phone messages. Landis did make an appearance at Saturday's time trial during the Tour of California, still apparently drawn to a sport that has rebuffed him. Fans yelled insults as he left with security guards without speaking to reporters.

He told last week that one of the hardest phone calls he had to make was to his mother in Pennsylvania — to tell her the truth.

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