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Breaking Away
Early on, Floyd Landis Learned the Last Shall Be First. Then Came the Tour de France.

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 2, 2006; D01

In the eyes of the Mennonites -- a community defined by its uncompromising work ethic -- the servant shall be exalted in time. Cyclist Floyd Landis, who has made a career out of servanthood, believes that his time has come. In fact, the onetime Mennonite has the date and place for his reward precisely fixed: the afternoon of July 23, when he hopes to roll into Paris as the winner of the Tour de France.

Landis's chances of achieving this goal soared Friday when more than a dozen cyclists, including virtually all the race favorites -- Italy's Ivan Basso, Germany's Jan Ullrich and Spain's Francisco Mancebo -- were tossed out of the competition after being implicated in a doping scandal. Landis, a former teammate of seven-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong, had been widely viewed as a sure bet for a podium finish, especially after his impressive victories in three major week-long races this spring.

Now, observers of the sport rate him the top prospect to win -- and, exactly 20 years after Greg LeMond's historic victory, to continue the American domination of what had once been a decidedly European sport.

Reacting to the news that his chief rivals won't be in the lineup, Landis sounded characteristically modest. "At this point, I have to be fair and open-minded; we all do," he said Friday by phone from Strasbourg, France. "I'm actually disappointed that those guys aren't racing."

Landis is something of a local hero. He started racing near Frederick, Md., and local cyclists still remember the brash teenager who pulled outrageous wheelies and then beat the field by huge margins. But his roots extend farther north to Pennsylvania's Lancaster County, and while he may have distanced himself from the religion he grew up with there, he still holds to many of its principles. He swears by plain old hard work -- a useful value when training for the world's most grueling endurance contest, a three-week event that started yesterday and will cover more than 2,000 miles and two mountain ranges.

He also believes in being humble, in teamwork and in finding strength through suffering -- though he's too humble to call what he experiences on the bike "suffering."

" 'Suffering' I think we should save for people who are being tortured," he says on a recent afternoon at his home in Murrieta, Calif., north of San Diego, a few days before he was to head to Spain, where he trains during the racing season.

He also believes in willingness to serve. Up to a point.

Landis, 30, toiled for three years as Armstrong's underling. He joined Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service team in 2002, using his mix of physical strength and dependability to help power the Texan to the last three of his Tour victories.

Then Landis decided he was sick of serving. He had outserved everyone else on the team; he was Armstrong's chief escort on the mountain climbs, biking in front of the champion so Armstrong had an easier ride with less wind resistance. On the flat roads, Landis was frequently at the head of the line of cyclists, pedaling at an infernal pace to wear down any followers who had the slightest hopes of usurping Armstrong's crown.

But Landis wanted more than to be forever a domestique , the snooty French term (it's also used for a maid or a cook) designating the eight teammates without whom no single man could win a test like the Tour de France. The domestiques are the links in the chain that pulls their team leader along the route day after day. On the fast-moving flat stages, they surround him in the peloton, as the group of riders is called, to protect him from collisions. They fetch him water and food from the team cars that follow. They even give up one of their own wheels if the leader gets a flat.

Yet unlike in other team sports, where victory is recognized as a collective effort, in cycling only the team leader steps onto the podium; he alone gets the magazine covers and the book deals.

So after the 2004 season, lured by a higher salary and the hopes of working his way up to leader, Landis left Armstrong's stable for the Swiss-based Phonak team. Soon after he joined, doping charges eliminated several teammates and put Phonak's future in question. When the team was finally cleared to compete in the 2005 season's circuit of races, Landis was picked to head the squad.

At last year's Tour de France, he finished ninth, a so-so result in a season where almost everything had gone wrong. But now, things are different. It looks like everything has gone right.

With three wins this season, he has fine-tuned the single-minded drive that started him pedaling in the first place, the urge to race away from the slow pace of his upbringing in Pennsylvania's farmland.

Just back from a 100-mile ride, Landis sinks into a deck chair on the patio behind his adobe-colored home. Veins pop out on his forearms, which are bigger and ropier than most cyclists', dating from his years as a mountain biker and a childhood of physical labor. A pink-skinned redhead, wearing a T-shirt and baggy jeans that swallow up his lean frame, he has an elfin look, with prominent ears and a keen nose. He seems to end each sentence with a chuckle.

The man who wears the yellow jersey when the race ends under the Arc de Triomphe will be the toughest, fittest rider of the bunch. He will have intimidated and offended his closest rivals. He will be the most selfish man on wheels.

The question for Landis is, can a man raised to denounce the very notion of personal triumph muster the egomania? Is he mean enough to win?

The Mennonite Way

Landis grew up in Farmersville, Pa., a crossroads of perhaps 200 souls, set in the wide, sweeping countryside that is home to some of the nation's largest congregations of the Amish and Mennonites. The roads are dotted with horse-drawn buggies and folks out walking in old-fashioned dress, with the women in devotional caps and aprons.

The Mennonite way emphasizes plainness and self-denial. One doesn't call attention to oneself; individuality is frowned upon. The community is central; any Mennonite whose barn burns down knows his neighbors will pitch in to raise a new one.

In keeping with the value they place on meekness -- and on limiting contact with the worldly outside culture -- Mennonites do not proselytize. They keep their views to themselves and quietly walk the talk.

You get a sense of Mennonite society from the lay of their land, its openness, its unhurried atmosphere, the clean sense of order in the squarely built houses and geometrically laid crops. There's the land, the sky and, flat and distant, the distinct line of the horizon.

That's the line Floyd Landis longed to cross.

He was a strong-willed boy, the second of Paul and Arlene Landis's six children. Always poking holes in the explanations he was given.

Like the time he was about 6 or 7, and he was with his father in the barn behind their house, arguing with him about something he has long since forgotten. But he remembers his father's words.

"He said if I really wanted to do something, I could do it," Landis recalls. "And I said, 'Well, you can't jump over the barn.' And that was the problem between me and my parents the whole time. I was always logical about everything, and that's part of the reason why I didn't stay and just accept things the way they were."

Landis's family was devout -- church was at the center of their lives, and there was no television, or radio other than Christian broadcasts -- but, as many Mennonites do, they made compromises with the outside world. Paul Landis owned a carwash and laundromat. Floyd Landis attended public school, where most of his friends were non-Mennonites.

That's how he got gradual tastes of the world beyond Farmersville -- though at times they were too much to bear. When he was about 8, he spent the night at a friend's house, where he watched "Jaws" on video. It terrified the uncorrupted boy.

"I didn't sleep all night," Landis says. "I just lay there shaking. I was scared . They all just sat there watching it like it was normal. I was thinking, 'What is wrong with these people?' "

The family rode bikes together after church on Sunday afternoons. As a teenager, Landis hopped on his bike to hang out with friends and escape town. "We were just lighting things on fire and throwing rocks," he says, laughing. "That's what you do when you're 15 and you don't have video games. So you have to actually burn things and kill things."

Bike riding was freedom, the most freedom he had ever felt. And, as he found when he was 16 and won the first race he ever entered, he was awfully good at it.

Cycling was also a way to put his growing frustrations with his family's lifestyle behind him.

"The things that I was told didn't make sense to me," he says. Like the notion that competing in bike races was somehow an affront to God -- why would He even care? Landis wondered. While no one ever declared outright that he'd wind up in Hell for racing his bike, the implication was clear, Landis says. His soul was on the line. It didn't help that most of the races he entered were on Sundays.

Then there was the confining pace of life. "When you're young," he recalls, "you don't see how much value it has, that there's security and there are people who care about you and that no matter what happens, you're going to be okay. When you're 16 or 17, you don't see that part. At that point, life is a great adventure."

When he realized he could break out of Lancaster County and live that adventure if he got good enough on the bike, riding became an addiction. He patterned his training regimen after what he read of the pros in cycling magazines. But his day was ultra-scheduled; after school he had a job at a grocery store, and he also repaired washing machines at his dad's shop. Chores kept him busy until long past dark. Only then did he get on the bike, and he'd streak along the deserted country roads until early morning.

Landis rode through the winters wrapped in layers of thermal underwear and plastic bags. Not even snow deterred him. "When the rest of the children were sledding," recalls his mother, "he was riding his bike up the hill."

His dream was to be a professional mountain bike racer. He first gained notice in the Maryland foothills, winning races at Greenbrier State Park in the early 1990s.

By the time he was 18, he was racing most of the summer. In 1996, at the age of 20, he moved to Southern California.

But the way he trained was all wrong for mountain biking, which demands short bursts of aggressive riding.

"The harder I worked, the worse I got, because the races were too short," he explains. "I trained for five hours a day and the races were only two hours." He laughs. "I didn't really think that one through."

By 1999, when no team would hire him, Landis says he came close to throwing his bike in a dumpster. He was so depressed he trained even harder, logging 50 hours a week, flogging himself into insanely good shape. Lacking anything else to do, he and a friend decided to enter a road race; they blew the competition away and soon afterward Landis landed a job on a pro road team. It turned out that his obsessive training style was ideally suited to the long-distance demands of road racing.

Just as he'd planned, the bike had set him free. But now, he realized, he needed it for something else. It had to fill a steadily widening hole, the one carved out by his conscience.

"I felt guilty about hurting my parents, number one," he says. "I didn't know if I was doing the right thing. I felt like I should be going to church on Sundays."

Perhaps that is why biking became so all-consuming: It filled in for God, for his family, for the security he'd given up.

"It takes so much time and energy -- that's why I did it in the first place. If you ride hard enough and long enough," Landis says, "you forget about everything else."

Modest Celebrity

Road racing is a cutthroat sport. With lots of money on the line, fellow competitors aren't always so friendly. (Armstrong in particular has a reputation for chilly relationships with those who left his team.)

In California, Landis has coped by duplicating some of the aspects he valued most about his upbringing, such as kinship and simple living. He married into a large Mexican American family; his wife, Amber, had a toddler daughter, who is now 9, and a bunch of brothers living nearby. One of them lives with the Landises and serves as sidekick-support-car-driver when Landis is at home.

Landis's house, in a gated community with a view of the mountains, is noticeably free of stuff. He earns close to seven figures from Phonak and could receive a $2.5 million bonus if he wins the Tour de France. But there are no signs of great wealth here. Walk into Landis's garage and beside his VW Touareg and a Ford Escape you will find exactly one bike. Above it hang a few spare tires; beside it, a bucket of neatly arrayed tools, kept upright like sharpened pencils on a teacher's desk. The stand that holds the bike was a gift from his wife last Christmas; Floyd, she says, never saw the need for one himself.

"It drove me crazy," says Amber. "He'd be fixing the bike and holding it with one hand."

Any sign that Landis has become a cycling celebrity is absent. Amber once framed and hung some magazine photos of him; he took them down.

Landis long ago reconciled with his parents. In 2004 they took their first trip overseas to witness the peloton racing up a peak in the Pyrenees. There the route was clotted with screaming, liquored-up, flag-draped Basques, who had poured in from Spain by the busload. Amid this rowdiness, clustered together in their high-necked frocks and crisp white bonnets, sat Landis's mother, Arlene, and three of his sisters, holding up a hand-painted banner. On it was the modest assertion: "We Support Floyd Landis."

"I feel like what he's doing is a very wholesome thing," says Arlene. "He's made some different choices, but he doesn't live selfishly. I know he's a very caring person. . . . You just follow him with prayers. You know someone bigger is going to take care of him."

Landis has no entourage. He keeps in touch with a couple of trainers but relies mostly on his own daily pen-and-paper logs of his rides, stretching back more than a decade.

Still, he says, there are no answers in these charts. The only way to win is this: "It just comes down to pedaling your bicycle harder than the other guy. That's all it is."

"Anything you do more, you get better at it," he continues. "I think the downfall of most people is they just don't do it enough."

Can He Be Selfish?

For many longtime observers, Landis's ability to triumph in the Tour de France hinges on whether he can handle both his team and the rest of the field with ruthless self-interest.

"There's a definite change, going from being a supporting rider to a leader," says Greg LeMond, who knows about such things. He became the first American ever to win the Tour only after a fractious battle against one of his own teammates for the top position. "It puts a lot of pressure on you to have the whole team racing for you. It wears you out."

"Does he have the killer instinct like a Lance Armstrong?" asks analyst Phil Liggett, who announces the Tour annually on cable's Outdoor Life Network. "I don't know."

Says Phonak team member Robert Hunter: "In many instances he hasn't been prepared to totally waste the team for his own benefit. . . . He's always thinking of the team's consideration before thinking of himself. Then that makes us say, 'Don't think about us.' " But there's an upside: "A lot of the time the guys end up sacrificing more for him."

Still, Landis seems uncomfortable with aiming for his own achievement at the expense of his teammates.

"You have to care about each other, otherwise nobody's helping anybody and nobody gets anything," he says. "If you're the leader and you want to win races, you kind of have to be a little bit selfish. The whole thing is kind of a mess."

Ready to Ride

"Man, it smells good with all those orange blossoms," Landis exclaims the next day, inflating his chest with a loud sniff. "It's like heaven."

He's standing in the parking lot of a run-down burrito joint on the slopes of Mount Palomar, wolfing down a candy bar in preparation for his second ride of the day up to the top -- a dirt road climb that ascends 4,000 feet in a little more than 10 miles.

It's a chilly, blowy, dismal morning. Fog smothers the surrounding mountains and shrouds the orange groves. The parking lot is grimy and littered. But that sweet floral scent is like a little amen.

Landis couldn't be happier. In his painfully bright green-and-yellow Phonak uniform, he stands out against the bleakness like a giant ear of corn. He's all smiles.

"I'm tired from yesterday," he says with a grin, licking chocolate from his fingers. "I rode, like, 100 miles in four hours." He jerks his head toward the road. "Let's go ride some more."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company