Yellow Fever

July 24, 2006
July 24, 2006

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July 24, 2006

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  • As a wide-open race heated up and headed into its final, brutal week in the Alps, U.S. rider Floyd Landis--bad hip and all--was poised to grab the leader's jersey for good, or go down trying

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Yellow Fever

As a wide-open race heated up and headed into its final, brutal week in the Alps, U.S. rider Floyd Landis--bad hip and all--was poised to grab the leader's jersey for good, or go down trying

How cruel thefates can be. Floyd Landis had overcome so much to get to this point:disapproving parents, bankrupt teams, a right hip so ravaged that it will soonneed to be replaced. Now, as he approached the pinnacle of his sport--a chanceto lead the Tour de France--it appeared that Landis would be waylaid by ... acold.

On the morning of July 12, the day before the most important stage of his life,Landis showed up for an interview in the lobby of his team hotel in Bayonnesounding like a guy in a Nyquil ad. Between coughing and clearing his throat,the 30-year-old leader of the Phonak squad insisted in a raspy voice that thecold "isn't a problem, as long as it doesn't move down to mychest."

This is an article from the July 24, 2006 issue Original Layout

"If he canhandle a [bad] hip," an eavesdropping team official interjected, "hecan handle a runny nose."

Both were right.In the Spanish Pyrenees the following afternoon, on the ascent to a ski stationcalled the Pla-de-Beret, Landis rode away from race leader Cyril Dessel andinto the yellow jersey. As he stood beaming on the podium just beyond the stage11 finish line, his arms made a giant V, with a bouquet in one hand and astuffed lion in the other. The moment had the feel of a succession. It was asif a torch was being passed--just not to the guy the Discovery Channel team hadin mind.

Discovery's Tourde France dynasty did not die the day Lance Armstrong retired. It hung on untillast Thursday, when George Hincapie cracked on the pitiless Col du Portillon,the mountain pass preceding the Pla-de-Beret. Until then Hincapie, who playedSmithers to Armstrong's Mr. Burns through seven victorious Tours, stood asDiscovery's best hope for keeping le maillot jaune.

But at the base ofthe climb, whose summit marks the Spanish border, a quartet of T-Mobile ridersmoved to the front and commenced turning the screws. Among the scores of ridersdropped was Hincapie, who by the end of the stage had hemorrhaged 21 minutes,23 seconds to Landis, a fellow American. "I wanted to go," Hincapiesaid later, "but I didn't have legs."

He had effectivelylost the Tour. The Discovery era was over, calling to mind a moment from TheSun Also Rises. Asked how he squandered his fortune, the dissolute cuckold MikeCampbell replies, "Two ways. Gradually, and then suddenly."

The firstpost-Armstrong tour was proving to be more wide-open than anyone hadanticipated. By the time he'd won the third of his tours, Armstrong had becomethe event's patron: the dispenser of favors, the judge of disputes, theunquestioned boss. Not only was there no patron through the first two weeks ofthis year's race, there was not so much as a hall monitor. "Right now,"Landis said before stage 10, "no one's riding like they think they canwin."

Landis did hispart to add drama to the proceedings when, in a twist a soap opera producerwould have nixed as implausible, he held a rest-day press conference beforestage 9 at which he announced that he has been racing for the last four yearswith a degenerative condition in his hip. The joint is so far gone andperiodically so painful, he reported, that it may have to be replaced as earlyas next month.

Landis shatteredthe hip in a crash during a training ride in January 2003. Six months and twosurgeries later he raced the Tour de France. In November 2005 doctors diagnosedavascular necrosis in his hip. (The affliction, a lack of blood flow thatresults in the death of tissue, ended Bo Jackson's career.) Landis kept what hecalls "my condition" a secret and continued racing. Despite beingArmstrong's most valuable teammate at the '04 Tour, he left the team after thatseason--he had butted heads with Armstrong and team director JohanBruyneel--and hitched on with Phonak.

In a sportcomposed of very tough hombres, none are grittier than this son of Mennonitesfrom Pennsylvania Dutch country. Landis--who now goes out of his way,incidentally, to profess his love for his parents--prides himself on not makingexcuses and takes pleasure in repeating the Jack Handy maxim: "It takes abig man to cry. It takes a bigger man to laugh at that man."

So why reveal hiscondition nine days into the Tour? Rivals pointed out that there was nodownside: If Landis wins, the bum hip renders him more heroic. If he loses,he's got an out. Bruyneel--who believes frailties are to be hidden, notpublicized--even wondered aloud, with cameras rolling, what Landis was upto.

"It's not aweakness," said Landis, his eyes blazing briefly at the mention of his oldboss. "I think I've won more races than anyone else in the peloton thisyear."

Even so, he didnot hold off the field for long. Two days after taking over the yellow jersey,he surrendered it to former Phonak teammate Oscar Pereiro. But Landis madeclear that it was a loan, not a gift. By choosing not to defend--indeed, by allbut holding the jersey for Pereiro while the Spaniard slipped it on--Landisallowed Phonak to lie low for a couple of days, marshaling its strength for theCol d'Izoard and the Alpe d'Huez, which awaited the riders on Tuesday.

If the race istight coming out of the mountains, Landis holds a trump card. The lastmeaningful stage is a 57-kilometer time trial on Saturday, the day before therace ends. Of the remaining podium threats--Denis Menchov, Cadel Evans, CarlosSastre--Landis is the best at racing against the clock, though you'd hardlyknow it from this Tour. At the prologue in Strasbourg he was late getting outof the start house, an unheard-of foul-up that resulted when a team mechanicnoticed at the last minute that Landis's back tire had a tiny slit. A weeklater Landis lost a half minute when his handlebar extensions snapped duringthe time trial in Brittany. If he survives the Alps and gets through the finaltime trial without a Keystone Kops moment, this should be his race.

It could wellhappen. All Landis needs to do is ride the way he's been riding. And call in aloan.

Read more Tour coverage from Austin Murphy after every stage

The moment had the feel of a succession. It was as if atorch was being passed--just NOT TO THE GUY the Discovery team had in mind.
PHOTOPhotograph by Stefano Rellandini/ReutersPEDALPOWER - Cruising between Luchon and Carcassonne in stage 12, Phonak teammatesprotected Landis (in yellow) as he saved himself for themountains.PHOTOALESSANDRO TROVATI/AP (INSET)[Seecaption above]PHOTOPETER DEJONG/APSHORT-TERM LOAN - Landis gave up the yellow jersey after just two days, but heinsists that he will take it back before Paris.