High in the Alps
of the Maurienne region of France, guests at Les Chalets Goelia awakened on
July 20 to the twitter of birdsong, the lowing of dairy cows and the slightly
less euphonious sound of heavy metal blasting at high volume.
"When I heard Floyd playing Metallica really loud," recalled Koos
Moerenhout, a rider for the Phonak team, "I thought, O.K., something's
going down today."
Something major had to go down in order to get Floyd Landis back atop the Tour
de France. The previous afternoon the 30-year-old Phonak captain and former
teammate of Lance Armstrong had been in excellent position to succeed the Texan
as Tour champion. But early on the climb of an Alp called La Toussuire, the
final ascent of the Tour's toughest day, Landis had cracked like Humpty Dumpty.
His cadence slowed, his breathing became tortured. His face, usually a mask of
indifference, betrayed deep suffering. Having begun the day in the leader's
yellow jersey, Landis nosedived to 11th place, eight minutes and eight seconds
behind new leader Oscar Pereiro. With only a single mountain stage remaining in
which to make up significant time, Landis had eliminated himself from
That was his
thinking, at least, for the next dark hour or two. But then Landis was relayed
a message from five-time Tour winner Eddy Merckx, the Cannibal himself, whose
son, Axel, is a Phonak teammate, and his mood began to shift. "You've lost
the battle, not the war," the elder Merckx said.
Not that Landis
usually needs such reminders. This is a guy who is as obstinate as Pharaoh in
the Book of Exodus, a rider who has raced the past four years with a
degenerative hip condition. ( Landis confirmed last week that he will have his
right hip replaced within the next two months.) It was simply not in him to go
gentle into the realm of also-rans. As he later said, "I needed to prove to
[my teammates] that it's worth working for me, that I don't give up after one
As night fell,
"everybody started to regroup, find the morale we had lost," Moerenhout
said, "and we made a plan."
It was less a
plan, really, than a wing and a prayer, bringing to mind the scene in Animal
House in which a battered Otter rises to his feet to argue that "a really
stupid and futile gesture be done on somebody's part."
the guys to do it!" concurs Bluto, and the Deltas rise as one and storm out
of the room.
Landis and his
teammates didn't stay up all night constructing a float bearing the legend EAT
ME. They did, however, wreak considerable disruption and confusion in the
peloton the next day. The Hail Mary pass that Landis threw on July 20 did not
just succeed beyond all expectations, putting him in striking distance of the
lead, which he seized for good in the Tour's final time trial two days later.
It also provided a gleaming counterweight to the doping scandal that had
overshadowed this Tour since the day before it began. (Operaci�n Puerto, as
Spanish police called it, led to the expulsion of prerace favorites Ivan Basso
and Jan Ullrich, among others.) By single-handedly transforming stage 17 into a
kind of velo Instant Classic, Landis ensured that this Tour will be remembered
as much for the heroics of a rider who was there as it will be for the
suspicion hanging over those who weren't.
Plus, the dramatic
ride got him off the hook with the host country. The French had been carping at
Landis for his lack of panache, for not attacking, for not winning stages, for
eking out his slender margin with all the �lan of a claims adjuster. But after
his meltdown Landis threw away his caution. One bad hour in the Alps made a
desperate man of him.
He rose on the
morning of the 20th completely recovered from his disastrous fringale (that's
French for bonk) and set about the important task of working himself into a
controlled fury. Faced with something akin to mission: impossible--a ton of
time to pull back from the leaders and essentially one stage in which to do
it-- Landis had little use for rational thought. "I had to get rid of
calculated logic for a while," he said, "and just get angry."
helped, as did Kid Rock's Fist of Rage, as did Le Dauphin� Lib�r�, a French
paper whose headline that morning said LANDIS OUT. "That made me mad,"
he later allowed. At the start that morning, in a town at the base of La
Toussuire, a reporter made his way to the Phonak bus, essentially to extend
condolences to Landis, who seemed strangely upbeat.