By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 28, 2006; E01
Floyd Landis, the little-known American cyclist who captivated the nation last week with his come-from-behind victory in the Tour de France, begged for the chance to prove his innocence after producing a drug test that showed suspicious levels of the steroid testosterone, jeopardizing the title he claimed in Paris on Sunday.
The Phonak Cycling Team said it received notice Wednesday from the International Cycling Union (UCI) that Landis showed a disproportionately high ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone in a drug test administered last Thursday. UCI later confirmed that announcement, but Landis has not yet been charged with a doping violation because the analysis of his sample is not complete.
"I'm asking that everybody take a step back," Landis said in a wavering, emotional voice last night during a conference call from an undisclosed location in Europe. "I don't know what your position is now. I wouldn't blame you if it was a bit skeptical because of what cycling's been through in the past . . . [but] I would like to be assumed innocent until proven guilty, since that's the way we do things in America."
Landis, 30, who is banned from competing until his case is resolved, made his biggest move in the Tour on the day in which he later was tested, climbing from 11th to third in the standings after a remarkable, dominant victory in the 17th stage of the 2,272-mile race. A positive test for testosterone would result in a two-year ban from the sport and nullify his Tour title, giving the crown to second-place Spaniard Oscar Pereiro.
Landis's title followed seven straight by Lance Armstrong, who was dogged by doping allegations throughout his career. No Tour winner has ever been forced to relinquish his title because of a doping violation.
"My immediate reaction was to look for the alcohol bottle," Landis said about receiving a faxed notification of the test on Wednesday. It was "a disastrous feeling. I had everything I could have possibly hoped for and dreamed of for the last 10 years. . . . There was no way for me to tell myself it wasn't going to be a disaster, no matter what."
The test result is considered unofficial until the second half of the original sample is examined to confirm the first finding, and follow-up testing might also be required to support doping charges in this case, depending on the method of analysis used by the French lab that did the testing, according to World Anti-Doping Agency rules.
The Phonak Cycling Team said on its Web site that Landis would be fired if a doping violation were confirmed. Landis said he had been consulting experts since he received word of the test but did not offer an explanation for the result.
He did note that after having fallen into 11th place the night before the test was administered, he and his teammates had all but given up on winning the Tour. In their despair, he said, they went briefly to a balcony bar for beers, then drank whiskey at the team hotel. He said, however, that he intended to find a "more reasonable explanation . . . other than Jack Daniels."
He said he did not know if he had a naturally high testosterone/epitestosterone level, but he said he did not take exogenous testosterone.
UCI President Pat McQuaid said in a statement it "would be a great disappointment and unacceptable violation" if the positive were confirmed, but it would affirm the sport's commitment to fighting performance-enhancing drugs.
Cycling has been riddled by positive tests and accusations of guilt since police raids uncovered doping instruments among riders and teams before the start of the 1998 Tour, which led to criminal charges and withdrawals of some riders. Days before the start of this year's tour, nine riders were banned from participating because of their connections to a Spanish doctor under investigation for blood doping. American Tyler Hamilton, the Tour's fourth-place finisher in 2003 and a former member of Phonak, is serving a two-year ban for blood-doping that was unearthed during a 2004 race.
"It's a mess," World Anti-Doping Agency Chair Dick Pound said. Cycling "has already taken a number of body blows. . . . The second, third, fourth and fifth finishers in last year's race were all busted in the Spanish thing. Now this . . . [but] first of all, we have to wait and see whether this is a formal positive."
Landis is entitled to be present when his B sample is tested, but he said he wasn't sure if he would avail himself of that privilege. Testosterone is considered among the trickier drugs for drug testers to pinpoint because it occurs naturally in the body. WADA requires that samples that possess greater than a 4 to 1 ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone be subject to further analysis, which includes the gathering of at least three additional urine samples to show that the high ratio is indicative of drug use. This step can only be bypassed if the sample was analyzed with what is known as the carbon-isotope ratio (CIR) test, a more expensive and complex testing procedure that can differentiate between natural and synthetic testosterone.
Landis said he did not know which testing methods were used. The simple ratio test alone has been subject to extensive criticism.
"It's kind of tragic this even got out," said Don Catlin, the director of the WADA-accredited U.S. drug-testing laboratory and pioneer behind the carbon-isotope ratio test. "It's possible to have a T/E ratio over 6 and still not have taken testosterone. It's not common, but it's possible. . . . [This testing] is as complex as they come. . . . I don't subscribe to the view that you put out these tentative positives."
UCI announced Wednesday that a rider on the Tour had produced "an adverse analytical finding" in initial testing of the sample, but it did not name the rider. When Landis dropped out of a race that night in the Netherlands, citing hip pain, attention focused on him. Yesterday, he skipped another planned event and his team announced the result of the preliminary testing on its Web site.
"The team management and the rider were both totally surprised of this physiological result," the Phonak Cycling Team said. "The rider will ask in the upcoming days for the counter analysis to prove either that this result is coming from a natural process or that this is resulting from a mistake in the confirmation."
Landis endeared himself even to the French with his unassuming style and daily heroics; he revealed during the Tour that he had a degenerative hip condition that would require surgery soon after the race. His ride during the 17th stage was immediately described as one of the most stunning performances in Tour history.
"We must respect the due process rights that are afforded to every athlete who competes in a sport that adheres to the World Anti-Doping Code," U.S. Olympic Committee President Peter Ueberroth said in a statement. "With that said, if the B sample confirms the result of the A sample, and if Floyd Landis is ultimately found to be guilty of a doping offense, it would be an incredible disappointment."