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What Kind of Tour de France Was It?

Much Ado About Landis

by DAVID PRICE

Most mornings I get up around five o’clock and I try and write for an hour. The last few Julys I’ve become absurdly addicted to watching and listening to live feeds of the Tour de France in the early hours of the west coast morning while I write. As a simple bike commuter, it amazes me to watch the peloton clip along effortlessly at 30 miles per hour, riding the distance I commute all year in three weeks. While Lance Armstrong’s victories were always impressive, the superhuman quality of Armstrong’s ability to harness his body to his will generally held little suspense, and the work of Armstrong’s lieutenants, protecting him, chasing and breaking others made the outcomes of the last few tours almost foregone conclusions. I usually started out rooting against Armstrong, but he was so good I couldn’t help but become a fan, even if he knew he was the greatest rider ever.

This year, Floyd Landis seemed from the very beginning to be the unassuming man to watch in the Tour. Unlike Armstrong, Landis is a different sort of biking star. Landis comes across as a humble rider doggedly racing against himself as much as anything. His performance in this year’s Tour at times seemed uneven, but you could tell he was doing all he could with the limitations of his team to position himself for a push towards the end of the tour.

Landis had limited team support and apparently thus made some strategic decisions to pass the yellow jersey to other teams, letting them draw the fire to defend it for a few stages, and then he would seize it back. When Landis lost all power climbing up an endless mountain side, he dropped from leading the tour to a hopeless eight minutes behind. Landis lost too much time to have any hope of recovering in the few remaining stages. It was obvious that he would not see the yellow jersey again this year-perhaps never again as he would be having hip replacement surgery this fall.

After stage sixteen Landis made no excuses. He shyly told the press that everyone has bad days and he’d just had one at an inopportune time. It was a real loss to see such an honest rider lose all he’d fought for so quickly, but as I read that morning’s newspaper, Landis’ fall to the middle of the pack made as much sense as the news headlines declaring that Israel was hastening total war, and the U.S. congress had voted to unanimously support this war against the Lebanese public. Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich and TV commentators all declared this the beginning of World War Three. Loss seemed to be everywhere.

But somehow, the next day Landis came back; and it is the "somehow" that is garnering all this attention on Landis’ stage seventeen urine sample. Somehow on stage seventeen Floyd Landis left all the competition minutes behind as he tore up the Alps and shot down windy roads at top speeds wining the stage and regaining almost all of his lost time. This was a superhuman feat that would be simply unbelievable in fiction. Around the world, cycling commentators and past champions declared this to have been the greatest stage victory they’d seen in their lives. I’ve certainly never seen anything like this and am sure I never will again. It was the impossible comeback.

With the gains of stage seventeen Landis was set to win the time trial two days later, and then the Tour itself. It was all a fairy tale ending, until the urine tests showed unusual levels of testosterone. Now Landis is presumed guilty from a few drips of this single urine sample.

Floyd Landis’ Mennonite upbringing in Lancaster, Pennsylvania adds something to the story. His background is not that of your average glory grabber. Years ago I read that as a young mountain biker he had asked a member of the clergy for special dispensation to wear bum-hugging spandex while racing. He seems to have transferred his hardworking farming ethic easily to the sort of inner discipline needed to push oneself further up an endless mountainside, only to arrive and do it again the next day. His past grace in losing makes this first evidence of doping all the more troubling, as this counters not only the public image projected but his Mennonite roots. Early news reports quoted his mother, on the family farm, proclaiming her love for him and describing the intense pressures and temptations all riders face, her words presented by the press as if she might be wondering if her son had indeed doped-but in a way that suggested these were the temptations of the world, which I suppose they are. Later reports quoted her as complaining about the high levels of scrutiny that the Tour had always put on Lance Armstrong and other Americans, undertones suggesting that the French do not like having American clean their clocks in their own Alps.

Unlike soccer, football, baseball and basketball, cycling doesn’t mess around with athletes caught using performance enhancing drugs. After one confirmed positive doping incident riders are suspended, if it happens again they are banned for life. This is one of the few sports that takes doping seriously and top cyclists are among the most heavily tested athletes on earth-which isn’t to say doping doesn’t happen, it does. Just days before this tour, a slate of top riders were suspended from competition just for providing incomplete information about their dealings with a doping doctor.

I don’t know what to make of Landis’ doping allegations. I don’t know Floyd Landis, and neither do the hundreds of millions of other who are judging him. I have no idea whether or not Floyd Landis doped his performance on stage seventeen; but everyone should all wait and see what happens with his second sample.

The mathematics of conditional probability show that false positives are tricky things; so tricky, that tests with 99 percent accuracy can still generate more false positives than true positives when testing for something rarely occurring. There are good reasons why multiple urine samples are taken.

That Landis’ single suspect urine sample came from a day with such an impossible performance inevitably heightens suspicions. Something unusual happened on stage seventeen. It will be a shame if it does turn out to have been dope that lit up Landis. Watching his comeback in stage seventeen gave me momentary hope for the next time I have a disastrous day; but should it found to have been a juiced ride the possibility of such comebacks for we mere mortals will be likewise removed.

DAVID PRICE is author of Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI’s Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists (Duke, 2004). His next book, Weaponizing Anthropology: American Anthropologists in the Second World War will be published by Duke University Press. He can be reached at: dprice@stmartin.edu