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Attitude on Wheels
AUSTIN MURPHY
July 03, 2006
As brash as ever following three big early-season wins, former mountain biker Floyd Landis rides into the Tour de France finally free of his former boss and nemesis, Lance Armstrong
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July 03, 2006

Attitude On Wheels

As brash as ever following three big early-season wins, former mountain biker Floyd Landis rides into the Tour de France finally free of his former boss and nemesis, Lance Armstrong

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Floyd Landis never saw the stump that sent him flying. Screaming down a steep descent during his first lap at the 24 Hours of Canaan, a mountain-bike relay race in West Virginia, Landis strayed from the track into a patch of weeds. When his front wheel hit the concealed stump Landis was propelled into the air like a circus clown shot from a cannon. "The wheel took on the shape of the stump," recalls Will Geoghegan, one of Landis's teammates at that 1994 race. "It was like a cartoon." Geoghegan was resting at the team's condo, not expecting Landis for another hour, when he saw a bloodied lunatic riding a wheelie in his direction and shouting, "I need a new wheel!"

Same race, following year: In a mudfest, Landis had three flat tires, and his bike light failed during a wee-hours loop. He finished the lap riding on his rims and "biting down on one of those squeeze lights people have on their key chains," says Geoghegan, who shares these Landis stories "to give you an indication of his determination."

Were it not for his hardheadedness, Landis would never have taken up pro mountain-bike racing 11 years ago, when he was 19. He would not have trained at night and in winter on the byways of his native Lancaster (Pa.) County. He would not have entered races without the permission of his parents, who worried--correctly--that his obsession with the sport would come between him and the family's Mennonite faith. He would have quit riding in 1998, when his mountain-biking team lost its sponsorship, and not made the implausible leap to road racing, which he did so well that he soon attracted the attention of a team called the U.S. Postal Service.

Were it not for his mulishness, Landis would not have clashed with his masters at Postal: team director Johan Bruyneel and another stubborn cuss by the name of Armstrong. Had they not butted heads, Landis would not have defected two years ago to the team sponsored by Phonak, the Swiss manufacturer of hearing aids, whose pea-green and lemon-yellow jerseys are, appropriately, the loudest in the pro peloton. Now in his second year with Phonak (and his first as its uncontested leader), Landis is having a breakout season. He's won three major weeklong stage races--the Tour of California, Paris-Nice and the Tour de Georgia--and he's a strong favorite to earn a podium spot at the Tour de France, which starts on July 1.

By far the most dramatic of Landis's recent victories was his four-second win in Georgia over Tom Danielson of the Discovery Channel (formerly U.S. Postal Service) team. Landis held that Lycra-thin lead going into the penultimate stage, which ended with an obscene three-mile climb up 4,784-foot Brasstown Bald Mountain. Midway through the ascent, he found himself isolated with Danielson and Discovery's Yaroslav Popovych, who lurked only 97 seconds back in the general classification. The Discoveries took turns attacking Landis, hoping to force him to expend extra energy. Instead, Landis let Popo go up the road, spot-welding himself to Danielson and even attempting to draw him into conversation. "I'm happy to let Popovych win the stage," Landis recalls telling the Discovery rider. "I just gotta stay with you."

In the end Popovych couldn't hang on--he fell to third--and Danielson couldn't drop Landis. Why talk to Danielson during the climb? "I was just trying to get into his head," says Landis, grinning. "When you're trying to drop a guy and he sits there talking to you, it's the most annoying thing in the world."

That win was sweeter for Landis because it came at the expense of his former team. When he joined the Posties, Landis had just three full seasons as a pro roadie under his belt. He'd competed, by his count, in only "four or five" weeklong stage races under his belt when he was informed that he would be working for Lance Armstrong in the 2002 Tour de France. That Landis got through the hardest bike race in the world on his first try was a measure of his toughness, of how far he'd come in a short time. It was also a measure of how little he'd changed since his days in the fat-tire fraternity. That was Landis during the final stage, popping wheelies on the Champs-�lys�es.

Floyd is the second oldest of Arlene and Paul Landis's six children. Paul owns a car wash and laundromat near Farmersville, a hamlet in Pennsylvania Dutch country. He and Arlene are devout Mennonites who took the family to services every Sunday--"and on Wednesdays," Floyd adds with a touch of asperity, "in case you forgot what they taught you on Sunday."

In keeping with their faith, the Landises had no television. For entertainment Floyd and his buddy Eric Gebhard rode their bikes a half mile to the Conestoga River--to fish, they told their parents. "But we didn't care about fishing," says Landis. "We liked to throw rocks and burn things. You don't have TV or video games, what else are you going to do?"

When Floyd was 15 he and Eric upgraded to mountain bikes. Floyd dropped $300 on a neon green and orange Marin Muir Woods. "My dad was bitter for a month," he recalls. When their local bike shop put on a race, Floyd entered--in the beginner class--and won. A year later he won the sport category, the next level up. The future could not have been clearer to him: He would race mountain bikes for a living.

His parents didn't see the wisdom of this career path. Forbidden to go on training rides after school until he'd finished his chores, Floyd had no choice, in his mind, but to ride at night. In the 2005 book Lance Armstrong's War, author Daniel Coyle tells how Paul, skeptical of his son's claim to be riding his bicycle for hours after dark, once followed him at a discreet distance along the roads of eastern Lancaster County.

When Floyd was 18 he won the junior national cross-country race in Traverse City, Mich. After graduating from Conestoga Valley High, in '94, he moved to Irvine, Calif., where he raced first for TWB, a tiny bike components company, and, after TWB went belly up, for Chevy Trucks. When the latter sponsorship was yanked in the spring of '98, the cycling career of Floyd Landis appeared to be over.

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