If appearances counted for anything, then Floyd Landis would be arriving in London for the start of the Tour de France next week as the pre-emptive favourite to defend his stunning victory of last July, and not as a pariah.
Never has a man looked so innocent, so steady of gaze and sweet of disposition. As he sat in a lecture hall at Pepperdine University in California last month, looking on as expensive lawyers argued over the positive drug test that transformed his image overnight from yellow-jerseyed hero to bare-faced cheat, he carried the air not of a top-class athlete staring down the barrel of ruination, but of a wonder-struck schoolboy let loose for the day in the crazy, crazy world of grown-ups.
”I am looking forward to the hearing, delighted that finally I have the chance to put my case,” Landis said before the United States Anti-Doping Agency (Usada) arbitration panel met to decide whether or not he should be banned for providing a positive ”A” sample for testosterone on July 20, the day he rallied to win stage 17 of the 2006 Tour — a ride described by some observers as one of the greatest in the race’s history.
Landis’s carefully nuanced case against the methods employed by the French laboratory responsible for the positive test was submerged by a soap opera subplot involving his former manager and a plot to blackmail former tour champion Greg le Mond, who was due to give evidence for Usada.
The cyclist who pleads his innocence has become a target of contempt in recent years, not least because many of the ”innocent” have subsequently been exposed as cheats. Landis is aware of this lineage but affects not to care that it now potentially includes his name.
”Before all of this happened I used to put more energy and time into caring what people thought about me, but the truth is I’m not going to convince everybody,” he says. ”What people think of me personally is meaningless at this stage. They can think what they like. All I care about now is that the next guy who comes along gets the chance to defend himself. As the system stands, an accused person has no chance of proving he is innocent.”
As with his generalised pleadings of innocence, it is easy to dismiss this apparent concern as self-serving claptrap. But the charge is harder to pin on Landis than might be thought, not least because he has put his money where his mouth is.
The bill for defending himself over the past year stands at $2-million and is rising. Usada’s arbitration panel will deliver its verdict later this year but, assuming it rules against him, he will take the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
”Most of the money I made as a bicycle racer has gone to the lawyers. By the time we’re done every penny will be gone,” he says with the matter-of-fact tone of an experienced blackjack player facing up to a bad night at the tables. ”Do I think it’s been worth it? Yes, regardless of the result. It is not in my personality to take something like this and not defend myself.”
But what of his apparent docility under questioning, not to mention his various explanations of what might have caused his positive result, ranging from a natural high level of testosterone to his imbibing a large amount of whisky the night before stage 17?
”People think I should have got angrier. I don’t know what to say to that. It was a more stressful time in my life than I can ever remember and people react differently in those kinds of situations. I was angry.
”As for the various explanations, I didn’t know what had caused the positive test. In the circumstances all I could do was give people details of what I had been doing the day before in the hope there might be something in there,” he says, although as those words come out he seems to sense their inadequacy. ”The truth is I didn’t know what to say. But I couldn’t just hide, could I? There was no place to go.”
With the Usada arbitration hearing behind him and his fate still undecided, Landis now finds himself staring into a wide horizon of uncertainty. In the short term he has a book, Positively False, to promote and he expects to be in London next week for Le Grand DÃ©part.
He dismisses the suggestion he intends embarrassing the race director, Christian Prudhomme, who said last month that Landis’s name would be erased from the tour’s records. ”What is he going to do — sell videos of the race with a black spot over me?” Landis sneers. — Ã‚