It’s hardly a secret that he tested positive for testosterone at the 2006 Tour de France and was stripped of his title. For four years he denied any and all accountability until recently when he decided enough was enough and he found the courage to set the record straight. The problem is that when you say one thing and then another, everything is naturally questioned.
Not to make light of Landis’ actions, but the story is much more complicated than a villain being exposed. Professional cycling has deep issues and while Landis is the poster boy of this predicament, he might also help shed some light on the sport which will lead to a better understanding and function in the sport.
When Floyd Landis was in Geelong last week to talk at the New Pathways for Pro Cycling conference Cyclingnews had the opportunity to sit down and discuss the last four years of being Floyd Landis.
As a journalist who is deeply invested with a love for cycling I had to make a concentrated effort not to make judgements. I didn’t seek him out to help clear his name or to further demonise him. I wanted to get inside the controversies, put the emotion aside and try to understand what went down. It’s important to cycling no matter what people think of Floyd Landis personally.
Cyclingnews: When you were first introduced to doping did it go through your mind that this isn’t right? Did you get a feeling you were trapped and had to do it?
Floyd Landis: I wouldn't characterise it as being trapped in any way. I'm not easily manipulated. It was a decision I made knowing the circumstances and knowing all the information in front of me. I wouldn't say it was a forced thing.
CN: Did you think at one point you don't want to do this?
FL: I think that's an oversimplification of the thought process. That wasn't why I started racing my bicycle. It never crossed my mind that it would lead to that. Once that was part of the system I never spent time to think about whether it was right or wrong. It was part of the game.
CN: After you tested positive did you think it was part of the game to deny your culpability? Why did you decide to finally tell the truth?
FL: Right from the outset in 2006 I went back and forth with what I should do. It was never as though I really wanted to be doing what I was doing and I understood the consequences it was going to have for other people. Some days I came very close to making up my mind to come clean and other days I would think about it and didn't want to put other people through it. It's not a black and white thing where it was fine with me for four years and then it wasn't anymore. There were many times when I came very close to doing it and because what I knew it would involve, not just for my own humiliation as I had already been through it, but for other people that were involved that had to deal with it. It was a complex decision that took a long time.
CN: Do you wish there was a way you could have come forward without implicating people?
FL: There was a way, but it would still be a lie. The story involves other people. That's the nature of the story and so to tell the story and try to fabricate a reason why it was just me wouldn't clear my conscience at all. I may have well not said anything - that's my way of thinking.
CN: You mentioned that you didn’t want to end up like Pantani. How much was this a factor in coming forward?
FL: I went back and forth for years with what the best thing to do was. I don’t know how I could have best gone about it, but I’m sure I did the right thing. But I saw what happened to him as an example. This is in no way is a judgement against Pantani. Who knows why he did what he did. People go through depression for many different reasons. Maybe it had nothing to do with cycling. I did kind of feel trapped in the story that I had created to protect me and other people. I just chose that I didn’t want to feel that way anymore.
CN: A lot of people supported you during your career. When your family and friends found out, were they supportive, did they understand?
FL: The people I had a chance to sit down with and speak frankly to for enough time to explain why I made the decisions I made and explain how complex the situation is - those people are fine. Unfortunately I can't do that with the entire world or the percentage of my fans, but for the people close to me I have that luxury. Once they understand the process you go through and the decisions you make over time that lead to that, they are relatively understanding.
CN: What was the strain like on you? How hard was it to go around and do this and at the same time lie to the people you were close to?
FL: It's not quite that simple. After the positive test in 2006, a lot of my time was defending that and learning about the science. I never went back to the life before that and went to cycling where it was free of that whole entire subject. It's not like my days were spent feeling tremendously guilty because everything I had to do or say was a lie. I didn't like the fact that I couldn't just tell anybody the facts. Like I said, it was a complex story and there were more reasons than just me wanting to mislead people that kept me from saying it in the first place. It was an uncomfortable feeling and no one wants to feel guilty and feel like they were lying to their friends. That wasn't the only deciding to factor to say it or not say it. It didn't somehow ruin my life. It didn't cause me to do things or behave in any way I may not have behaved anyway. I wasn't happy with my life because of what had happened. I was no longer allowed to race my bike or able to live the dream I lived before. So many things changed. It's hard to blame that on any particular thing that happened or a decision I made.
CN: The Tour of California is an issue I want to address now. The general consensus in cycling is that you caused trouble at the Tour of California and the media seemed to have misconstrued some facts and told one side of the story. What is your side of the story? Did you actually say anything at the Tour of California about the doping issue? Were the letters you wrote leaked or did you leak them yourself?
FL: The letters I had written took place in the months before the Tour of California. They were sent to the people who were meant to read them. They were not sent in mass emails to the entire world. How the press got them during the Tour of California is not entirely clear to me, but they didn't come from me. When the press got hold of them, I had to deal with it. I went to the Tour of California, but I didn't make any statements there. I didn't try to cause a scene. I went there because a good friend of mine had a VIP booth he paid for and invited me there but I didn't make any press statements. It wasn't directed at the Tour of California. It wasn't some conspiracy by me to harm the Tour of California. That wasn't the case.
CN: The views of some people are that you did what you did because you were not invited to the Tour of California. What is your reaction to that?
FL: I'm not entirely sure how they decide who to take the race and who not to take the race. I had changed teams a few times because of what happened with Rock Racing not getting a licence. It wasn’t a great surprise to me that the team I was with didn't get invited.
Over the few years previous, I was very close to coming clean about things and what good time was there? There is always something going on in cycling and any time I did it would have corresponded with something and someone would have said it was me trying to do some damage to cycling. Because it happened then, they would make it look like it was directed at the Tour of California, but it wasn't. So when is a good time to tell the story?
CN: Did you write those letters long before you knew you were going to the race?
FL: Some of them, but it also continued over a period time when I knew. However, the fact of the matter is it's all an attempt to distract from the facts of what is in the letters. Those things that I said are true. To try to say that let's talk about how he tried to damage the Tour of California instead of focusing on the facts are just an attempt to divert people's attention from the reality of the problem in cycling. It’s not in any way an attempt to clear up what is really going on or what really happened.
CN: People have said that you have decided to do all this because you were angry that you were singled out when other people were in fact involved in doping and you wanted to strike back.
FL: No matter what the motivation is. The facts are the facts. If they want to distract from those facts it means they don't want to face the situation in cycling. The facts don't change.
CN: Do you feel that your upbringing lent yourself to a sheltered existence. At age 17 you went out into the world, were you unprepared for the realities that you faced?
FL: I don't think most people are prepared for what they end up having to deal with in professional sports. Professional sports aren't what they appear to be on the surface. For example, if you begin your dream of being a basketball player or football player or whatever, it is your dream of doing and if you finally make it to the point where you're a part of the show, you finally learn quick that it's not what it appears on the surface — there's a lot more going on. How anybody can be prepared is beyond me.
CN: Now you have accepted responsibility, do you feel better about yourself? How much of a weight has been lifted off your shoulders?
FL: It's not like it was a daily weight on my shoulders for having to go through what I went through. It's easier to talk to people face to face. The question for me was never going to go away — it will never go away. I will meet new people and they will ask me what happened and why I did what I did. I had convinced myself it was better to tell them nothing ever happened and it was not easy to do and I was never left feeling good about myself having done that. Now I don't have to do it anymore — that part is easy. It's not like my whole life is fixed. I still have to deal with the consequences of what happened but it's better to be able to tell the truth.
CN: Do you mind going into some of the consequences?
FL: I went through a lot in the four years after I had won the Tour de France. It's hard to say one way or the other which things that happened were directly related or not. My life was not entirely pleasant for those four years for various reasons but it's hard to pinpoint what was the direct result of that or what was life in general.
CN: What have you learnt from this experience? How do you go forward now?
FL: I don't know. I will take one day at a time like I have the last four years trying to figure it out. It's not something that is scripted. There is no one to really look to and say how do I really go about dealing with this? It's somewhat unique and I'm sure I'll make mistakes in the future. It's not as if I’m correcting everything I have done wrong. I want to live my life, want to keep riding my bicycle — whether it's racing or not. I want to do something positive with my life. I can't really say what that is yet.
CN: Any words for your supporters?
FL: I appreciate anyone that stands by me and tries to understand the complexity of what happened. It's not to downplay the decisions I made or to say they would have made the same decisions. People would have dealt with things differently. I'm not happy with some of the decisions I made but the people willing to stand by me and understand it, those people I value over just about anything else.
CN: Why should people believe you now?
FL: People can believe whatever they like.
CN: Did you anticipate the backlash directed at you?
FL: Yeah certainly. I was acutely aware of how the press and how people react to things of this nature. It was part of what took so long to finally commit to doing it. To make sure I knew it's what I needed to do for myself and what was the facts. I wish I could change the way it was dealt with but I knew it wasn't a possibility.
CN: How do you think the sport can be cleaned up?
FL: The subject and issue of performance enhancing drugs is never going to go away. I think what’s missing now is the respect between the cyclists and the UCI and the anti-doping agencies and it needs to go both ways. Until they trust each other and are able to have open dialogue about it, I don’t see a solution. There is no easy solution, it will take time. That is a good starting point and that is why I came to Geelong to talk about it openly.
CN: What do you think of the systems in place? You and others have evaded detection for so long? How did you do it?
FL: That’s a complex question but it’s not that difficult to do.
CN: What are your views on current penalties?
FL: I take issue with the rule of what they call ‘strict liability,’ in which an athlete is responsible for anything that is found in the urine or blood sample regardless of how they got there. And I also take issue where the penalties are not negotiable. I’m unaware of any justice system where there is the same penalty for every offence. There should be a degree of offences with harsher penalties than others. The black and white line that is created by the WADA code at the moment is partly what leads to the lack of respect from the athletes because the world is not like that. The world has grey areas and there needs to be some give and take on both sides and until that happens the athletes just aren’t going to believe that the anti–doping agencies have the right motive behind what they are doing.
CN: Do you think there should be safeguards in place for riders who talk? Maybe not immunity from bans, but something in place to ensure they are not treated like an outcast when they serve their time, because everyone deserves a second chance. Do you think it’s unfair?
FL: If they give information on who assisted and helped them, I suppose that’s a reasonable thing. However, the hazard in that is it would lead to a motivation to create scapegoats and blame other people even if it never happened just to get a reduced sentence. A better way of doing it would have varying degrees of offences based on what the probability that it actually increased their performance also the likelihood that the drug got there someway other than them intentionally trying to cheat. The penalties should be adjusted for that rather than adjusted for turning in something else. It’s all fine and good to know what the system is to try and prevent people from assisting others in doping. There is a hazard in asking for information for a reduced sentence because it would be simple to make up a story at that point.
CN: What general advice do you have for younger riders that want to take up the sport and how can they avoid the same issues you faced?
FL: If they want to be a cyclist and enjoy cycling then to stay involved in it and try not to forget what got them interested in it in the first place and what makes them happy about it. If they are faced with those decisions, the circumstances will change. They might be more or less complex. It’s hard to say if I have advice for that. If they enjoy it, are happy and it makes their quality of life better, try and remember why that happened in the first place and stay focused on that and deal with decisions when they come.
CN: You would like to get back to racing at a high level but not many people are giving you the chance. How can you go about it? Do you want to still keep racing if you can’t get to the higher level?
FL: I enjoy racing. I’m not hopeful I’ll ever race the Tour de France again. I don’t see that happening. I will do what I can with what is put in front of me. I don’t know how to change that because of the magnitude of what happened to me with the doping control agencies over the last few years.
CN: Have you thought about life after cycling? What is the next step for Floyd Landis?
FL: I don’t know. It will take a while to separate myself from cycling and be able to focus on that. At the moment I enjoy being part of cycling and enjoy racing. I will remain open minded about what opportunities come along.
CN: Not many people admit to themselves the things they have done, but you have. Based on this, do you think you could perhaps to be a role model to younger kids?
FL: I don’t see myself in anyway being better for admitting these things. I did it for many different reasons. I can understand why some people don’t want to. They don’t want to put other people through it and if they can live with it and are happy with themselves, it doesn’t make me a better human being or role model. I hesitate to say anybody should have a role model. People should make decisions in life based on how it’s going to affect the people around them they care about and how it will affect them. To try and emulate a person is a huge risk because everyone is flawed in some way.
CN: Down the road after all the storms have passed. Do you think your efforts to make the best of a bad situation may serve an example to others?
FL: I don’t know. I don’t want to put myself on the pedestal. Everyone at some point has to face a situation they don’t want to be in and has to face adverse circumstances where they try to make the best of it. I’m not unique in that way. I’m doing what I can. Other people can probably argue that there are other ways to do it, but most people in general I would like to give the benefit of the doubt to that they are trying to get through life and be happy. If that’s their goal, it doesn’t take an example to do that.