Posted: Wednesday July 19, 2006 4:58PM; Updated: Wednesday July 19, 2006 4:58PM
EPHRATA, Pa. (AP) -- The bike was Floyd Landis' ticket out.
Growing up in a conservative Mennonite family in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, Landis longed to escape what he viewed as a stifling and narrow culture of work, family, church.
Landis pedaled hard out of Lancaster County and never looked back -- and, until a disastrous ride Wednesday, had found himself in contention to win the Tour de France, the biggest bicycle race of them all.
When he was a teenager, his parents questioned their son's obsession with cycling and were baffled by his determination to chart a different course.
A decade later, they are cheering for him -- even on a horrible day like Wednesday, when Landis' collapse in the Alps potentially ended his bid to win the Tour.
"We just think very highly of this boy," Floyd's mother, Arlene Landis, said in an interview. "I don't criticize him. I feel like he's living a high standard and that honors me."
Her son, now 30 and one of the world's elite cyclists, grew up in a white farmhouse bordered by cornfields in Farmersville, a rural crossroads of a couple dozen homes just outside the borough of Ephrata in eastern Pennsylvania.
The second of six children, he was raised in a conservative Mennonite church whose members wear plain dress, live simply and eschew the larger culture. The Landis home had phones and electricity, but no television. The family never missed church, sometimes going several times a week.
Landis chafed at his environment, yearning to experience the outside world and pushing boundaries in ways that made his devout parents view him as willful and disobedient.
"I wanted to get away and find out what there was in life, on my own, and the bicycle was a way of doing that," Landis, who has left the Mennonite fold, said Monday from the Tour. "But there was never a time when I just decided, 'I hate my parents, I gotta get away.' That wasn't it."
Landis was 15 when he bought his first mountain bike at Green Mountain Cyclery, a local shop. He struck up a friendship with the owner, Mike Farrington, a mountain bike racer who sponsored his own team, saw Landis as a natural talent and quickly added him to the roster.
Landis won the first mountain bike race he entered. Two years later, in 1993, he was crowned a junior national champion. He told friends he would win the Tour de France some day.
"It was very, very difficult for him to want to be involved in a sport such as this, coming from the background he came from," said Farrington, 39. "There was that constant pressure of, 'Do I go to church or do I go to the mountain bike race?"'
Landis made his decision at age 20, moving to southern California to train full time. When the mountain biking craze fizzled, he switched to road racing and did so well that Lance Armstrong recruited him to U.S. Postal, the team that helped Armstrong win a record seven Tours.
Meantime, his parents learned to let go, to accept their son's direction in life.
"I just had to learn to back off and let God work in his way," said Arlene Landis, 53, a warm and gracious woman with an infectious laugh.
Landis' mother, who walks to a neighbor's house each morning to watch the Tour, readily concedes she did not understand her son as a teenager -- and, on some level, still doesn't.
"If I had a second chance, I'd be much more loving," she said. "I was so firm, because I thought I had to keep him a little bit under control. I think I appeared cruel at times."
The Tour de France, too, can be cruel as her son learned Wednesday as he relinquished the leader's yellow jersey, falling to 11th place. The three-week race ends Sunday.
Farrington said he believes his friend can climb back into contention.
"He's been down before, he knows what to do," he said. "It was heartbreaking to watch, but that's bicycle racing."
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