Pre-scandal profile on Landis’ rise to fame
[NB. This profile was written before the drugs scandal.]
Whenever one of sport’s untouchables retires, be they team or individual, there follows a hangover in their native land as a successor is desperately sought and awaited. In cycling, Spain has yet to find the next Miguel Indurain; France has waited 20 years and more for a new Bernard Hinault; while Belgian endured 27 years of frustration before Tom Boonen finally proved a star to match Eddy Merckx in stature if not results.
Cycling fans Stateside now have to wait until a worthy successor to Lance Armstrong appears. There can only be one Armstrong, who was on a planet of his own among sports stars in general let alone cyclists, but there is a whole rash of strong cyclists in his native country who can carry with them the hopes of Americans from George W Bush downwards.
All, curiously, are linked to Armstrong in some way; all have passed through his US Postal Service team, observed the great man in action and picked up tips when it comes to approaching the Tour in preparation and back-up. But only one American looks capable of delivering an eighth successive US Tour win, however: the former mountain biking Mennonite Floyd Landis, a unique talent in every way.
Landis’ early season results were indication enough of a transformation in the way he races. His victory in Paris-Nice was the first for an American and it came in the grand style, with a searing attack on the toughest stage of the race. Wins in the Tours of Georgia and California followed, and while these are not the biggest-ranking races on the calendar, they pointed to two things: Landis is hungry, and his team have settled into winning stage races.
Last year, lest we forget, Landis found himself suddenly thrust into leadership at Phonak after Tyler Hamilton (another former Armstrong acolyte) was banned for blood doping, while the team were dealing with the repercussions of that episode and the change of management that followed. This year, Phonak should be a force to be reckoned with.
In its way, the Landis story is as wild and woolly as that of Armstrong. Ginger-haired and puckish-faced, Landis was born into a Mennonite community in Lancaster county, Pennsylvania. While not as extreme as the Amish, Mennonites essentially renounce the materialist ways of the modern way and live apart from it; like all competitive sports, bike racing does not fit into their scheme of things.
As a result, Landis has struggled and fought for a place in his sport in a way that recalls the sacrifices made by cyclists of the heroic era. “I had a choice,” Landis has said. “You can bike and burn in hell forever or not bike.” His family were opposed to his teen obsession, so that, famously, his father loaded him with domestic chores to take up the time he might spend bike racing.
Instead, Landis simply trained at night, until two or three in the morning, bundled up in cheap thermals, with a headlight on his crash hat. Subsequently, he moved to California, to get as far away as possible from the family home in Farmersville. When he arrived on the West coast he had never tasted coffee and the only film he had seen was Jaws.
At 18, he won the US junior mountain bike championship and his early racing years were spent as a pro on the off-road scene, something he has in common with his fellow Tour contenders Cadel Evans of Australia and Mickael Rasmussen of Denmark. Landis’ first road race also was the stuff of legend. According to the version in Daniel Coyle’s Tour de Force, Landis turned up wearing tartan socks and pushing a humungous 56-tooth chainring.
On the start line, he turned and said to his fellow racers “If there is anyone here who can stay with me, I will buy you dinner.” Coyle’s version continues. “Laughter. Landis remained quiet, then replied. ‘You shouldn’t make me laugh, because that gets me angry. And if you get me angry I’m going to blow you all up.'” He won the race by 15 minutes including a stop to repair a puncture.
After a devastating spell with the small Mercury team, in which he finished third in the Tour de l’Avenir, Landis moved, inevitably, to Armstrong’s US Postal, and promptly finished second in the Dauphin Libr. His rise to the top has not been sudden; his is a talent that was apparent seven years ago, but which has been used in the service of Armstrong, a role in which he was not entirely comfortable by the time he quit Postal in 2004.
Purists might wonder whether Landis has raced too much this year, whether he should have saved his strength in the style of his old mentor, Armstrong. “The best Tour I had was in 2004,” he says, “and I was already very strong in the spring, winning the Tour of Algarve, for example. In any case, I know how to ease off and come back for July.” Once the maverick, Landis has settled down to the extent that his Phonak manager, John Lelangue, is convinced he will be in the frame this July. “He’s on track to be a strong, strong leader, one of about 10 guys who can win the Tour. He knows how to organise his team mates, he’s interested in every detail, and he’s learned a lot from Armstrong.” And if you are attempting to win the Tour, there can be no higher praise.
Landis in brief
Date of birth: October 14, 1975
Place of birth: Ephrata, US
Professional teams: 1999-2001: Mercury; 2002-4: US Postal Service; 2005-6: Phonak
Major wins: 2000: Tour of Poitou-Charentes, stage and overall; 2004: Tour of the Algarve, stage and overall; 2006: Paris-Nice, stage and overall; Tour of California, stage and overall; Tour of Georgia, stage and overall.
Tour de France placings: 2002: 61st at 1hr 48min 31sec; 2003: 77th at 2hr 25min 19sec; 2004: 23rd at 42min 55sec; 2005: 9th at 12min 44sec.