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- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
How cruel the
fates 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 soon
need to be replaced. Now, as he approached the pinnacle of his sport--a chance
to lead the Tour de France--it appeared that Landis would be waylaid by ... a
"If he can handle a [bad] hip," an eavesdropping team official interjected, "he can handle a runny nose."
Both were right. In the Spanish Pyrenees the following afternoon, on the ascent to a ski station called the Pla-de-Beret, Landis rode away from race leader Cyril Dessel and into the yellow jersey. As he stood beaming on the podium just beyond the stage 11 finish line, his arms made a giant V, with a bouquet in one hand and a stuffed lion in the other. The moment had the feel of a succession. It was as if a torch was being passed--just not to the guy the Discovery Channel team had in mind.
Discovery's Tour de France dynasty did not die the day Lance Armstrong retired. It hung on until last Thursday, when George Hincapie cracked on the pitiless Col du Portillon, the mountain pass preceding the Pla-de-Beret. Until then Hincapie, who played Smithers to Armstrong's Mr. Burns through seven victorious Tours, stood as Discovery's best hope for keeping le maillot jaune.
But at the base of the climb, whose summit marks the Spanish border, a quartet of T-Mobile riders moved to the front and commenced turning the screws. Among the scores of riders dropped was Hincapie, who by the end of the stage had hemorrhaged 21 minutes, 23 seconds to Landis, a fellow American. "I wanted to go," Hincapie said later, "but I didn't have legs."
He had effectively lost the Tour. The Discovery era was over, calling to mind a moment from The Sun Also Rises. Asked how he squandered his fortune, the dissolute cuckold Mike Campbell replies, "Two ways. Gradually, and then suddenly."
The first post-Armstrong tour was proving to be more wide-open than anyone had anticipated. By the time he'd won the third of his tours, Armstrong had become the event's patron: the dispenser of favors, the judge of disputes, the unquestioned boss. Not only was there no patron through the first two weeks of this 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 can win."
Landis did his part to add drama to the proceedings when, in a twist a soap opera producer would have nixed as implausible, he held a rest-day press conference before stage 9 at which he announced that he has been racing for the last four years with a degenerative condition in his hip. The joint is so far gone and periodically so painful, he reported, that it may have to be replaced as early as next month.
Landis shattered the hip in a crash during a training ride in January 2003. Six months and two surgeries later he raced the Tour de France. In November 2005 doctors diagnosed avascular necrosis in his hip. (The affliction, a lack of blood flow that results in the death of tissue, ended Bo Jackson's career.) Landis kept what he calls "my condition" a secret and continued racing. Despite being Armstrong's most valuable teammate at the '04 Tour, he left the team after that season--he had butted heads with Armstrong and team director Johan Bruyneel--and hitched on with Phonak.
In a sport composed of very tough hombres, none are grittier than this son of Mennonites from Pennsylvania Dutch country. Landis--who now goes out of his way, incidentally, to profess his love for his parents--prides himself on not making excuses and takes pleasure in repeating the Jack Handy maxim: "It takes a big man to cry. It takes a bigger man to laugh at that man."