The Tour [is an] epic [which] expresses that fragile moment of history in which man, however clumsy and deceived, nonetheless contemplates through his impure fables a perfect adequation between himself, the community, and the universe. — Roland Barthes.
The excitement was palpable as the group tumbled out onto the narrow street. There was a visceral buzz in the air and incredulous conversations were continuing, in English, French, Dutch, and German.
The group, a few minutes ago packed into the tiny cafe under the lodge in the village of Huez, had just witnessed an incredible riding feat. Clutching glasses of cold beer (whose prices had fallen dramatically from two days previous) close to their chests, everyone had jostled and strained to see the small TV set perched on the bar as Floyd Landis ripped apart the pro peloton and rode his remarkable solo ride up the Col de Joux-Plane and down into the finish at Morzine.
It was a incredible comeback and the entire cafe felt a curious camaraderie as if sharing in a momentous, historical occasion.
Out in the street, in the warm summer late-afternoon air, no-one wanted to stray too far from the scene – as if wanting to bathe in the moment for as long as possible. One American fan, not normally lost for words, could barely speak. “Goddam Floyd,” he kept mumbling. “Wow…”
That morning on Alpe d’Huez, the mood had been more somber. With the crowds from Tuesday’s stage finish on the mountain now largely gone, it was much quieter. A chance to prepare slowly for the morning ride, thinking about which local cafe or wine store to visit, and to reflect on a dramatic Tour de France.
The day before, on Wednesday, the maillot jaune had cracked on the climb to La Toussuire. Landis had fallen apart, struggling as he had on the Pla d’Adet in 2005. His chances of standing on the top step of the podium in Paris surely gone for good.
When he had pulled on the jersey after the Alpe d’Huez stage, his popularity soared – and not just amongst American or Anglo fans. The French press was captivated by his story: his humble origins, his years of selfless service to the mighty Armstrong, his decayed hip. In a race never short of drama, the Landis story was adding an exciting new chapter.
For fans, he seemed like such a worthy champion. Despite his rock-star pretensions, Landis seemed humble, serious, hard-working. Unlike his former team captain, there were no Disco Boys, personal jets, giant entourages, or spooky Italian doctors. Landis projected an image of bicycle racing in its purest sense. “Whoever trains hardest wins,” he was quoted saying.
His comeback, perhaps the comeback of the century, was surely testimony to that hard work. After all, this was a new beginning for the Tour, after the scandals of the 1990s and Armstrong’s seven years of overwhelming, almost dreary, dominance. And what a beginning it was: high drama to rival anything in Tour history.
When he finally stood on the podium in Paris, in the jersey of the Tour winner, there was universal acclaim for his victory. L’Equipe ran a picture of his parents watching the ceremony from their house in Pennsylvania, as well as a cartoon of Landis running an American flag up a flagpole as seven Texas flags came down the other side.
His ride that day on stage 17, the toughest mountains day of the Tour, was an epic one, a stand-out performance in the history of the Tour that has seen many great rides, worthy of comparison to Coppi, Anquetil, or Merckx. And fans were not the only ones to be impressed.
“Unbelievable,” said Mick Rogers. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“It was unbelievable how fast he went,” said Christian Vande Velde. “Who would have ever thought that Floyd could have been that strong.”
“It was epic,” said Chris Horner.
“Incroyable,” said L’Equipe’s headlines. “La Chevauchee Fantastique.”
And they were talking about Floyd Landis, the humble former domestique, who had never won a Tour stage before this year, who had never been expected to be more than a solid performer with an impressive but not outstanding resume.
Now, he had put in the ride worthy of one of the grand champions of the sport.
Later, though, as it all started to fall apart with his positive test results for testosterone, his performance was downplayed.
“A closer look at the data, however, shows that Floyd’s performance that day was well within his physical and mental capacity,” said coach Dr. Allen Lim. “In fact, the most important contributors to Floyd’s comeback was the tactics that developed during the ride – the hesitation by the peloton to chase and Floyd’s intelligent use of water.”
Landis had previously used a power meter in the 2005 Tour and Lim had published all his performance data. Analyzing his stage 17 results in 2006, Lim concluded that “Floyd averaged 281 watts for the entire 5 hour and 23 minute ride”. He went on to add that, “In training before the Tour and even before the Tour of Georgia, Floyd would regularly perform 6-hour rides at 300-310 watt averages.”
Lim also pointed to other figures: “As a point of reference, the overall average for the mountain days in the 2006 Tour de France was 269 watts +/- 16 watts [253-285], while the average in the 2005 Tour de France for the mountains was 274 watts +/- 20 watts [254-294].”
Going into the stage, Lim calculated that if Landis produced 380 watts on the climbs he would stay with the field; anything over and he would put time into them. Producing 370 watts would mean losing time. Using Landis’s stage 17 data, Lim published the following figures for the climbs.
* Col des Saises: 36 min 55 sec at 395 watts (gains time on field)
* Col des Aravis: 16 min 49 sec at 371 watts (loses time on field)
* Col de la Colombiere: 27 min 45 sec at 392 watts (gains time on field)
* Cote de Chatillon: 11 min 7 sec at 374 watts (loses time on field)
* Col de Joux-Plane: 37 min 34 sec at 372 watts (loses time on field)
Comparing the power data above to Landis’s performance in 2005 is illustrative. His best performance was on the mountains stage in the Alps, stage 11 to Briancon where he averaged 285 watts. In two tough consecutive days in the Pyrenees, stages 14 and 15, perhaps more comparable to stage 16 and stage 17 in 2006, for example, Landis averaged only 262 and 249 watts – the second day to Pla d’Adet showing the strain of consecutive stages.
Lim’s data for stage 17 shows several impressive power performances for periods over 30 minutes – 395 watts on the Col des Saises, 392 watts on the Col de la Colombiere, and 372 watts on the Col de Joux Plane. In 2005, on stages 14 and 15, his 30 minute peak power performances were 379 watts and 361 watts. It was these repeated efforts on the stage 17 climbs that were the winning formula.
Landis clearly made some improvements in his average power and peak power outputs for certain timeframes from his Tour ride in 2005 to his 2006 performance. What is interesting, though, is Lim’s claim that Landis was doing training rides at notably higher average wattages than any of his Tour performances in 2005. Now that’s hard training!
But these numbers were Landis in isolation, not a comparison to what the rest of the peloton on stage 17 were doing. What exactly happened on that epic ride?
As is well known, Landis and his team attacked on the Col des Saises. By the bottom of the Col des Aravis he had caught the breakaway group that had an 11 minute gap when Landis made his move. By the Colombiere, it was only Landis, Patrik Sinkewitz (ironically busted for testosterone in 2007), Daniele Righi, and Patrice Halgand in the group, Stuey O’Grady one of the riders dropped.
“I thought that was impossible, what he did,” O’Grady said later. “I’m not a bad bike rider and, you know, he made me look like a little kid.”
At the summit, Landis and his companions had 8 minutes over the peloton and his rivals.
Much has been made of the unwillingness of the peloton to chase Landis down, as they had expected him to crack and be brought back. When they did get organized, the gap started coming down. At the bottom of the Joux-Plane it was around 7’15, which was about the time that a number of chasers, including Carlos Sastre, Christophe Moreau, and Damiano Cunego, started to respond.
The Joux-Plane is one of the toughest Tour climbs in the Alps, rated hors categorie with just over 1,000 metres of climbing over 11.7 kilometres at an average gradient of 8.5%.
At the top it was Landis first over, followed by Sastre at 5’08, Moreau at 5’58, Cunego at 6’19, yellow jersey Oscar Pereiro was with Andreas Klöden and Frank Schleck at 6’52, with Michael Rasmussen, Cadel Evans, Dennis Menchov and Sinkewitz at 7’19.
The remarkable part of Landis performance was that on this toughest of climbs, while he lost time to three of the best climbers in the peloton, he was able to lose only 23 seconds to Klöden and Schleck, two excellent mountain men themselves, and Pereiro himself – also a capable climber – while he actually gained a few seconds on other top contenders.
In summary, Landis had broken away from the peloton on the Saises – “Floyd went off like a motorbike”, according to Rogers – and distanced most of the breakaway group with another high-powered climb on the Colombiere. Despite these efforts, on the toughest final climb of the day he had held off all his rivals. And this was near the end of a tough, long Tour that had clearly taken its toll on the field with many struggling on this stage.
No wonder the Tour was thrown into a frenzy.
Landis’s positive test for testosterone was a dark cloud over his remarkable comeback, with all illusions of a great ride shattered.
“It was another betrayal,” said Tour director Christian Prudhomme, “and a terrible one.”
In his defence, in his hearing for the USADA, Landis argued that there was no benefit to him taking testosterone. This was a disingenuous line of defence. Even though published studies have been inconclusive, testosterone has been used – on almost epidemic levels – in pro cycling for decades, with numerous high-profile riders having been caught or accused of using it.
Pro cyclist Joe Papp provided direct testimony to support the benefits of testosterone, in his case a gel that he applied with careful doses and timing to avoid urine screening tests designed to test for high testosterone levels.
“There was a significant improvement in recovery. There was no cumulative fatigue when I used [testosterone],” Papp said.
“After a doping control or if you knew you wouldn’t be tested, you just find a discrete location and rub it on your chest,” Papp explained, adding that the effects could be felt within 30 minutes, VeloNews reported.
Papp also revealed that he used EPO, HGH, cortisone, insulin, thyroid hormone, anabolic steroids and amphetamines in his career, the full laundry list. But testosterone did not allow him to ride faster than his competition in the mountains; its effects were more subtle.
“I felt a difference, an additional benefit when I used testosterone,” he said. “It facilitated recovery on a daily basis. On days 2 and 3 of a stage race, I could do close to the same amount of work as the first. EPO was different. With EPO the most salient and tangible effect was I could go up a hill faster, time trial faster, my power increased on that one day.”
If one gives weight to Papp’s testimony, we may be close to an explanation for Landis’s stage 17 performance. On that stage he produced average power figures comparable to a mountain stage early in the 2005 Tour and, apparently, to his training rides – but did so towards the end of a tough Grand Tour race. Did testosterone aid his recovery, allowing him to do ‘the same amount of work’?
The other positive testosterone results, done on his B samples by the French lab to detect synthetic testosterone, supposedly showed that Landis had testosterone in his system following other mountain stages, stage 11 in the Pyrenees and stage 15 on Alpe d’Huez, and the final two stages including the last time trial. Again, was this part of a programme to allow Landis to recover, and keep working hard, after tough stages in the race?
It was a curious Tour for Landis in other respects. On Alpe d’Huez, Landis and Klöden recorded times for the climbs that put them somewhere around the 6th or 7th fastest climbs on record, reports said, behind performances from Lance Armstrong, Marco Pantani, and Jan Ullrich, but faster than ascents by noted climbers Iban Mayo, Jose Azevedo, and Richard Virenque.
Also, on the rest day in Gap, Allen Lim reported that Landis had shown remarkable power on a training ride, 460 watts for 10 minutes, higher than any of his figures in the actual race.
Landis was clearly climbing in the 2006 Tour better than he had ever done before. This was attributed to his harder, more focused training, but there was much talk at the time of his trial about possible blood doping and suspicious blood values. While this is indeed a possible explanation for his performances, there was no conclusive evidence – leaving only speculation.
‘I’ll say no’
Landis has had a troubling attitude to drug testing, having been quoted saying that the random tests were “a complete invasion of privacy”.
“They’ve been to my house four times in the last four months,” he reportedly said prior to the Tour. “If you ask me, that’s excessive.”
When asked in July following his positive test if he had doped, Landis was decidedly less than equivocal in his denial.
“I’ll say no,” Landis was reported saying. “The problem I have here again is that most of the public has an idea about cycling because of the way things have gone in the past. So I’ll say no, knowing a lot of people are going to assume I’m guilty before I’ve had a chance to defend myself.”
He was soon back on message and since August 2006 has consistently denied taking testosterone, defending himself in the media, in a book, and at his USADA hearing.
“Knowing that the accusations against me are simply wrong, and having risked all my energy and resources…to show clearly that I won the 2006 Tour de France fair and square, I will continue to fight for what I know is right,” he said in a statement in October this year.
Unfortunately, the difficulty of the science of drug testing has left many questions unanswered: the balance of evidence pointing to guilt, but with troubling technicalities. The arbitration panel found him guilty by a 2-1 decision, but arguments continue to rage as to the extent of his guilt. The analysis of peaks and metabolites is enough to give the casual observer a migraine, with the scientists themselves providing competing advice. Landis, meantime, has appealed to the CAS to review his case.
And what of that group that witnessed the ‘incroyable’ ride by Landis, party to an epic slice of Tour history. Well, they either saw one of the most remarkable rides in years from a most unheralded rider. Or, they saw the strongest rider in the peloton doing exactly what he had done in training. Or, they saw the results of a carefully-orchestrated doping programme.
Some of them are still rubbing their eyes, wondering.