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
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 Bayonne
sounding 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 the
cold "isn't a problem, as long as it doesn't move down to my
"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
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."
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
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.
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."