Ten years ago, Floyd Landis became Tour de France champion—and then, three days later, it all started to fall apart. This is the story of how one angry cyclist progressed from his Rage Against the Machine phase to a kinder, gentler John Lennon moment.
Who are you, I considered asking the genial, smiling 40-year-old seated across from me, and what have you done with Floyd Landis?
You remember Landis, who had about 72 hours to celebrate his victory in the 2006 Tour de France before learning that he’d tested positive for doping, and who ultimately was stripped of his title. After protesting his innocence for nearly four years, he finally called in an air strike on himself and his sport. In detailing his use of performance-enhancing drugs for half of his pro career, he also pulled back the curtain on the systematic use of PEDs on the U.S. Postal Service team. That bombshell resulted three years later in Lance Armstrong’s sitting across from Oprah and admitting that, come to think of it, he had doped his way to his own seven Tour victories.
Like Armstrong, Landis told the truth only after years of denials; he even wrote a book exonerating himself, the ironically titled Positively False. To defray his legal bills, he used money donated by credulous fans to the Floyd Fairness Fund. Yet, for such a seemingly unsympathetic character, he turns out to be surprisingly sympathetic.
I’d last laid eyes on him in the spring of 2010, when he sabotaged the Tour of California by popping up near the finish line of Stage 7 in Los Angeles. Race organizers had denied his team entry; Landis’s guerrilla press conference ensured that the next day’s media accounts would be more about doping than about racing. The Landis of that time was bitter, troubled, angry—a far cry from the guy sharing a booth with me on a recent weekday afternoon at a tavern on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. This Landis has been to rehab, been to counseling. He’s much happier than the guy who took a flamethrower to bike racing’s omertà.
New Floyd, Mellow Floyd, Floyd the Doting Father is a different cat, and not just because he fires up an occasional joint to soothe the chronic pain in his right hip. On a recent weekday evening he was greeted in the foyer of the home he shares with his partner, Alexandra, by the sight of their 23-month-old daughter, a Cindy Lou Who lookalike named Margaret, swiveling her hips to John Lennon’s “Starting Over.” “She likes to dance,” said Landis, briefly busting out his own version of the twist, to the delight of the beaming Margaret. “I feel so much happier just being around them,” he added, motioning to both of the women in his life. “I’m really lucky.”
The whistle-blower lawsuit Landis filed against Armstrong in 2010 was joined by the U.S. Department of Justice in ’13 and is likely to come to trial over the next 12 months. Landis accuses Armstrong and his associates of defrauding the government by operating a sophisticated doping program in clear violation of the team’s sponsorship agreement with the Postal Service. That contract paid Armstrong’s team $30 million; the suit seeks treble damages. Landis could collect up to 25% of all funds recovered by the government. (Armstrong has said that losing this case would certainly cause him financial ruin.)
But even if Landis doesn’t make a cent on the suit, he’s going to be O.K. He lives much of the year in Colorado, where recreational cannabis was legalized in 2012. This week he launched a new brand of marijuana and marijuana-infused products, Floyd’s of Leadville, which should earn him a tidy profit, if not the approval of his Mennonite forebears in Farmersville, Pa.
He can hear the haters already: Once a doper, always a doper. He’s prepared for that. Landis has done a deep dive on the cannabis industry and on the issue of legalization. Studying that subject gave him perspective on his own problems. For years after his positive test and his de facto blackballing from the pro peloton, “I was still feeling singled out, having a hard time letting go,” he says. Reading up on the history of marijuana prohibition opened his eyes, he says, “to bigger injustices.”
“The likelihood of a black kid being arrested for having a joint is four times greater than for a white kid committing the same offense,” Landis says. “Couple that with a private prison system that spends millions lobbying to keep the prohibition in order to keep cells full. The unfairness of that is of so much greater significance than anything that’s ever happened to me.”
It was 10 years ago this month that Landis won the Tour de France on the strength of what was arguably the most epic one-day ride in cycling history. That feat, we now know, was made possible by a smorgasbord of PEDs, which did not include, he insists, the one for which he was popped.
He is heavier these days, which is to say that he looks like a normal guy rather than a member of a profession whose practitioners tend to be alarmingly gaunt. But in the way that he moves through the world, embracing Alex after a day apart, dancing with Margaret, spouting dialogue from The Big Lebowski (“The bums will always lose!”), he is lighter—as happens when one decides, after years of lying, to tell the truth. “It’s good that she’s getting me in my John Lennon phase,” Landis says of his daughter, “rather than my Rage Against the Machine phase, which probably went on longer than it should have.”
Depression. Rage. Oblivion. Repeat. Landis boarded that carousel not long after his appeal to the International Court of Arbitration for Sport was denied in June 2008. The legal battle had given him focus and purpose, as bike racing once had. But when the fight was over he entered a grim limbo. His feelings of shame and regret would quickly give way to anger. He fumed at the officials at USA Cycling and the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), who he claims knew about doping in the sport but turned a blind eye to it. He was angry at the false friends who’d abandoned him and at the French lab technicians who’d detected in his urine sample traces of exogenous testosterone, a drug he contends he did not use during that Tour. Sure, he’d infused blood, injected erythropoietin (EPO) and human growth hormone (HGH). But he’d beaten those tests fair and square! That pissed him off, as did his knowledge—often firsthand—that many of his peers in the peloton were as dirty as he was, if not dirtier. When ’06 Tour runner-up Óscar Pereiro was officially named the winner of that race—14 months after the fact—he complained that Landis had robbed him of the chance to stand atop the podium in Paris. Landis later pointed out Pereiro’s hypocrisy: He recalled speaking with Pereiro about the Spaniard’s doping regimen during the race. Pereiro, Landis said to The Sunday Times in ’10, “told me that he had another blood transfusion to do” going into the final time trial. (Pereiro denies this.)
“Those were dark days, man,” Landis says. “I didn’t know if I was going to make it. I was never really suicidal, but I couldn’t face the world. I just wanted to forget.”
To do that, he would retreat to a remote lair in Southern California’s San Jacinto Mountains, a ramshackle abode with ’60s-era wood paneling and a tan shag carpet. Every day he’d walk two miles to Mountain Top Liquor—“my home away from home,” he says. “I’d buy some whiskey, say hi to the local meth heads, then walk back.”
Having undergone a hip resurfacing in 2006, just two months after that disastrous Tour, Landis had prescriptions for Vicodin, Percocet and Norco. Some days he would down as many as 15 Norcos with a fifth of Jack. “I was addicted,” he says. “I feel lucky to be here, man.”
“But how do you put away that much whiskey in 10 hours?” asks a visitor. “That’s almost inconceivable.”
“You just haven’t f----- up on a big enough scale yet,” Landis says.
In retrospect, they should’ve seen it coming. Since his first year racing a road bike, Landis had demonstrated a proclivity for audacious, if doomed, attacks. In 1998, his second pro mountain biking team folded under him. Rather than waste his fitness, Landis signed up for road races as a privateer, attached to no team. He would attack from the first mile, not because he had a prayer of winning but because he took genuine pleasure in sowing chaos.
Signed by the U.S. Postal Service team in 2002, the young man from Pennsylvania Dutch country quickly established himself as a major talent—and a contrarian. Months before the ’04 Tour de France, he and his fellow Postal Service riders reported to the offices of team doctor Luis García del Moral, in Valencia, Spain. Everyone was to have a liter of blood removed, to be reinfused during the Tour, when their red blood cell counts would be depleted. “So [del Moral] says, ‘Everybody write a code name on your blood bag that you won’t forget,’” Landis recalls.
Rolling his eyes, Landis wrote on his own bag, floyd. Reasonably, this angered the doctor.
“He said, ‘What are you doing? You wrote your own name!’ I said, ‘Listen, man. My biggest concern here is getting the wrong blood. If [the authorities] have found this bag, I think we’re all f-----, so I might as well save ’em the trouble.’ ”
Landis’s contract was up following that season. After low-balling him for months, the USPS made a competitive offer at the eleventh hour. Thanks, Landis replied, but I’m already gone. He signed instead with Phonak and blazed to victories in three major stage races early in the 2006 season. He started Stage 16 of that year’s Tour de France in le maillot jaune—and finished it as an object of pity.
From the first of the day’s four categorized climbs, a 43-kilometer grind up the Col du Galibier, Landis had known he was in trouble. He masked his misery until the base of the final ascent, La Toussuire, and then cratered spectacularly. “It was like, ‘We’ve got a man down here,’” he recalls. “I just ... Could. Not. Go.”
“He was destroyed mentally,” recalls Axel Merckx, a Phonak teammate who paced the fallen leader to the summit. “He kept telling me, ‘Just go! It doesn’t matter anymore!’”
Landis plunged to 11th in the overall standings, 8:08 behind the new leader, Pereiro. In addition to drowning his sorrows that night with four shots of whiskey, Landis injected himself with a low dose of HGH to boost recovery. He also administered 500 IUs of EPO to nudge up his count of new red blood cells, which had been suppressed three days earlier when he’d transfused the last of his three 330-milliliter blood bags. Thus fortified, he weighed his options. He could ride conservatively and settle for a place in the top 10. He could husband his strength for the time trial, three days hence, and at least win a stage.
Or he could throw a Hail Mary.
“I’m going to attack,” he confided to Merckx, who nodded and smiled. But, Merckx says, “I was thinking, ‘Yeah, right.’”
The next day, about five kilometers before the base of the first Alp (there would be five in all), Landis launched a vicious attack. In the beginning the heads of state marked him. Denis Menchov, Carlos Sastre and Andreas Klöden matched Landis’s pace—until they decided it was ridiculous. Klöden, from T-Mobile’s team, was the last to peel off. “Come with me,” Landis urged him. “You can win the Tour!”
“You’re crazy,” the German replied. “It’s too far. You’re never gonna make it.”
Landis’s lead over the peloton grew inexorably, incredibly. Far behind, his rivals bickered about who should lead the chase. By the time they got organized, it was too late. Punching the air as he crossed the line in Morzine, Landis finished 7:08 ahead of Pereiro, whom he now trailed by only 30 seconds, a gap he would close easily in the time trial.
That Sunday he stood atop the podium on the Champs-Élysées. By Wednesday his world was crumbling.
For someone who got so much practice at it, Landis was a lousy liar. His heart didn’t seem to be in it. Asked at his first press conference following the positive test in France if he’d ever used PEDs, he began his denial with, “I’ll say no. . . .”
Yet somehow Landis was stunned by his swift passage from hero to punch line. It felt unfair that a press corps so willing to give Armstrong the benefit of the doubt had turned on him so quickly. More hurtful was the way Landis’s former colleagues let him know, not in so many words, You’re dead to me. When Landis’s suspension ended before the 2009 season, he tried to find a ride with a Pro Tour team, but he was radioactive. Johan Bruyneel, his old boss at USPS, now with Astana, was honest. “He said, ‘If we hire you, I don’t think we’ll be able to get into any races,’ ” Landis says. “But at least he took my call. Most teams wouldn’t even do that.”
In what amounted to a demotion to Double A ball, Landis joined a domestic team, OUCH-Maxxis, and looked at the bright side. He figured that at some of OUCH’s larger races, like the tours of California and Missouri, he could reconnect with old friends in the peloton, do some networking and ride his way back into the big leagues.
Instead, he found he was a pariah. “People I’d raced next to for thousands of hours wouldn’t talk to me,” says Landis, still incredulous. One reason he had kept his mouth shut during his suspension, he says, was to protect riders whom he’d considered his friends. That risk had been removed.
The few companions he did have were worried about him. At the 2009 Tour of Missouri he had a heart-to-heart with former USPS teammate Dave Zabriskie, who recalls, “It was clear to me that [Floyd] was really hurting.”
By 2010 Landis knew the way out. The time had come, he says, to “torch the whole thing.”
The email to USA Cycling CEO Steve Johnson, dated April 30, 2010, got right to the point: ... I was instructed on how to use Testosterone patches by Johan Bruyneel during the [Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré] in June [’02], after which I flew on a helicopter with [Lance] Armstrong from the finish ... to San Mauritz [sic], Switzerland, at which point I was personally handed a box of 2.5 mg patches. ...
Landis went on for another thousand words, naming names, detailing incidents. He fired off similar missives to sponsors and cycling officials and found it all immensely cathartic. “I would hit send on those emails and go, ‘Oh, man, this is great; I can sleep soundly for the first time in four years. I’ve told my story. I feel better now.”
Many people had the opposite reaction, including Armstrong, who denied all, attacking his accuser’s credibility. The Texan had good reason to worry. Landis’s allegations added fuel to an investigation led by FDA special agent Jeff Novitzky, the zealous gumshoe who’d spearheaded the BALCO investigation. Armed with subpoena power, Novitzky spoke with most of Armstrong’s former teammates. Lo and behold, the men who’d suffered for Lance on the road were unwilling to perjure themselves for him. But after the Feds’ case was inexplicably dropped in early 2012, USADA CEO Travis Tygart picked up where Novitzky had left off, deposing many of the same witnesses. The following October, USADA released the results of its investigation, a damning 164-page “reasoned decision” for stripping Armstrong of his Tour titles. He would lose eight sponsors in a single day.
But while Landis was in a better place, he still needed help. He was still angry, though less angry than before. And he was still abusing painkillers. He was stuck.
David (Tiger) Williams is a well-known Wall Street trader, a former Yale hockey player and a strong amateur cyclist. At one point he had a small stake in Tailwind Sports, which owned Armstrong’s Tour de France teams. In 2003 Williams was headed from the UCI World Championships in Ontario to the Interbike trade show in Las Vegas, and he had an open seat on his plane. He offered it to Landis, who’d never been on a private jet and who was especially taken with the minibar. “I’ve never seen anyone get so excited over a canister of Pringles,” Williams recalls.
They became friends. When Landis paid Williams a visit in 2011, it was to discuss a possible “business model.” This was during Floyd’s short-lived Ricky Bobby phase, when he was toying with the idea of becoming a NASCAR driver. But during that visit Tiger and his wife, Caroline, sensed their friend might benefit, as Tiger puts it, “from a change of scenery. It was time for him to look at life through the lens of what he wanted to do after cycling.”
He spent the next few months looking at life from the deck of Williams’s Connecticut guest house. Landis moved there “still not really knowing who I was or where I was going,” he says. “But at least I was around people who had some sort of mission in life.” During those months he started to let go of his anger. And while he struggled to figure out what to do for a second act, he had better success figuring out with whom he wanted to spend it. In 2013 he went on his first date with Alex; they clicked immediately.
Two years ago, intrigued by the burgeoning cannabis industry, Landis moved to Colorado. After working six months for a compounding pharmacy—he was basically a sales rep, educating doctors on the benefits of cannabis-based pain and anxiety relievers—he began exploring the possibility of going into the business himself. Like Sy Sperling, who was not only the Hair Club For Men president but also a client, Landis is proud to admit that he is an occasional consumer of his Floyd’s of Leadville products. By turning to cannabis to manage the chronic pain in his hip, which will soon require another surgery, he has less need for pills. But that’s not the only reason he smokes. “There are different kinds of pain,” he says. “Physical and emotional.”
These days he’s experiencing less of each. On a recent visit to New York City, Landis attempted to merge as he exited the Triborough Bridge toll plaza. Much time passed. With no one cutting him slack, he had no other choice, he felt, than to forcibly take a lane.
He had not figured on his newest nemesis, a steely-eyed woman in an Audi convertible who was determined to give no quarter. So resolute was she that, after a low-speed collision with Landis’s car, she proceeded to tap the vehicle in front of her. That driver got out, glowered at her, then got back in his car.
Landis did not leave his vehicle, did not raise his voice. He felt less anger than ... wonderment. “I had to respect her determination,” he recalls. “I was like, You win!”
Congratulated on his newfound serenity, he says, “Well, I mean, you can’t stay pissed off forever.”