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Rebel Rebel

Martin Dugard is the author of "Chasing Lance" and "The Last Voyage of Columbus."

The scene has defined America: A strong-willed son confronts his parents, telling them he is moving west, striking off into the wilderness to seek his destiny, perhaps never to return. Yet never in the history of the republic has that scene been acted out like it was in October 1995, on a large family farm in Lancaster County, Pa. Floyd Landis, a thin young Mennonite with ginger hair and the thick hands of a bricklayer, informed his parents that he was off to California to chase his dream. What he wanted more than anything, Floyd told them, was to race bicycles. That was his destiny.

Paul and Arlene Landis had raised their boy to reject the trappings of the modern world. They believed that he was damning himself to the fires of hell, and told him so. He went anyway. “It wasn’t easy to leave,” Landis explains. “I loved them, and I didn’t want to hurt them.”

We are seated in a Barcelona cafe. His lunch is a 12-inch baguette and a large coffee with milk, both of which he is too polite to touch until the interview is over. Landis is famous in Europe. Passersby swivel their heads in recognition as he softly concludes the story: “I didn’t leave because they were bad parents or I hated them. I left because I wanted something else.”

This July 23, that “something else” may come to pass. A decade later after leaving home, Landis is a favorite to win the Tour de France, which begins Saturday. So far this year he has won the Tour of California, Paris-Nice and Tour de Georgia stage races.

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At 30, he is coming into his competitive prime as an endurance athlete, and is the undisputed leader of the powerhouse Phonak team, sponsored by a Swiss hearing-aid company. If Landis can avoid crashing, mental letdown, media pressure, the predations of his European rivals and the common cold during the Tour’s 2,237 miles and 21 days of racing, he may stand atop the podium in the Place de la Concorde sometime around 7 p.m. on that third Sunday in July.

“He had to come to California to get to where he is now,” says his wife, Amber. “He couldn’t do it there.”

Many see a rebellious touch in Landis’ choice of residences. “You’ve got one of the greatest cyclists in the world, a man who could buy a house anywhere he wants,” marvels Matt Ford, owner of Rock N’ Road Cyclery in Mission Viejo, “and he lives in the 909.”

When Landis first arrived in California he lived in Orange County and was a regular visitor to Ford’s shop. “You’d see him out riding the canyons, and he’d come along and ride with you. He’d just start talking, being real humble. Most guys, they have to let you know something about themselves: which race they just won, how many miles they’re training, who their sponsors are, if they have them. Something. But Floyd never did that.”

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Landis’ cycling career began in Pennsylvania, pedaling his bike to the local fishing spot. He trained seriously, riding at night when his father loaded him up on chores during the day, wearing sweatpants during races because bike shorts were against his faith. In 1995, his first year in California, he raced mountain bikes, and was voted rookie of the year by the National Off-Road Bicycling Assn. Landis trained on the roads and trails familiar to anyone who has biked in south Orange County: Santiago Canyon, Saddleback Mountain, Whiting Ranch--pretty much anywhere there was good riding.

Landis later moved to San Diego, jumping from the fading mountain-bike scene to road racing. It was there that he met a funny, dynamic single mom named Amber Basile. They wed in 2001, just as his career was beginning to skyrocket. The following year Landis made the big time, moving from the financially troubled Mercury Cycling Team to Lance Armstrong’s vaunted U.S. Postal squad. Such were his considerable talents that Armstrong chose Landis to ride alongside him three times in the Tour de France.

Landis, though glad to be on such a high-profile team, earned a reputation for questioning authority--a distinct no-no in Postal’s high-control world, where the edicts of Armstrong and team director Johan Bruyneel carried the heft of biblical writ. On the bike, Landis was a team player. Off the bike, he chafed at taking orders.

Seven years after leaving Lancaster County, he found himself living a life that felt much like the one he’d left behind. He yearned for independence once again. “I’ve always been forced to make my own decisions,” he says. “That’s always been a part of my conflict with Johan and Lance. Lots of times you get so tired you don’t know what to do, but that’s a choice I want to make.”

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One month after the 2004 Tour, Landis left for Phonak.

Floyd and Amber live in Murrieta, just a few miles off the 15 Freeway. Though not, technically, the 909 (it’s area code 951), the region is part of the Inland Empire--hardly the jet-set habitat one associates with elite international athletes. The beach is a mountain range away, the nearest airport is a tossup between San Diego and Ontario, and on one recent morning a thin, brown haze hung over the strip malls that are its cultural core.

As I drove to Landis’ home, where he has lived since 2002, the setting reminded me of another drive I’d taken just a week before through France to meet Landis in Spain, where he lives and trains four months a year. Blasphemous as it might sound to Francophiles and Peter Mayle fans, Murrieta and Provence are one and the same: sun-drenched hills swathed in sharp brush, dry grass and boulders; grapevines and olive trees; winding country roads; and a quiet, bucolic vibe broken now and again by the jake-brake of a downshifting big rig.

“To be honest, when we moved out there it was the only place we could afford. We wanted to get a house, but I wasn’t making a whole lot of money,” Landis says. “I like the travel aspect of my job, but I really like it when I’m home. I’ve got everything I need for training, and Murrieta’s a great place.”

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There he can be anonymous after the fan frenzy of Europe, where cycling is followed with the same passion Americans assign to baseball. His immediate neighbors know who he is, but otherwise he is just another homeowner in a slightly upscale tract. After Hurricane Katrina, Amber and some women in the neighborhood held a bake sale to raise money for the victims. One of them suggested that they also hand out autographed pictures of Floyd. This proved puzzling--and a little bit creepy--to prospective cookie buyers, who had no idea that the guy in the photo was one of Lance Armstrong’s top rivals. “He could go to the grocery store and not be recognized,” says his wife, “that is, if he was the kind of guy who went to the grocery store.”

One place Landis is immediately recognized is on the local roads. Cyclists know him on sight. If they drive past while he’s on a training ride, they honk their horns and scream “Go Floyd” out the window. If they are lucky enough to be on their bikes when he comes along, they might end up riding a few miles with the man himself. “He’ll tie in with anybody,” says Matt Barringer of I.E. Bikes in Murrieta, Landis’ hometown bike shop. “You’ll be going along at a comfortable pace, talking, but then when he gets to a hill, he’ll say goodbye and tell you he’s got to hit the hill hard.”

A typical training ride might take Landis up Mt. Palomar or into Palm Desert. Amber’s younger brother Max follows directly behind in a white Ford Escape, providing food, extra clothing and protection against impatient motorists who might try to run Landis off the road.

Wives of professional cyclists tend to be chichi, fond of Gucci, leopard-skin pumps and hairless little dogs on long, skinny leashes. Amber Landis, who is brown-eyed, olive-skinned and fond of calling herself “ghetto,” is like them only in her outspokenness. She stays home with her 9-year-old daughter, Ryan, as Floyd travels to Europe. It is a warm home, with his medals and signed jerseys hanging on one wall in the living room, and a vast leather sectional in the den. A rustic wood table sits just outside the kitchen door. Beazdie and Boonie, the Landises’ corgis, laze on the kitchen floor.

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Amber sits at the kitchen counter, rattling forth a stream-of-consciousness rap about her husband’s quirks. He is a bundle of energy, she says, not the sort to cuddle, hang out or bring his job home, and singularly unable to sit down and watch TV--a vice he was never allowed in his childhood home. “His brain is always thinking; it’s always on. He always needs to be doing something.”

She stops, for it’s obvious that she cherishes those quirks. “He’s in every aspect the toughest man, ever,” Amber says seriously. “Physically tough, mentally tough, he’s just,” now she can’t help herself, “he’s just one tough bitch.”

Consider: In early 2003, Landis left home one morning for a solo training ride in the mountains behind Camp Pendleton. The road wound through the town of De Luz before descending into Fallbrook. Landis knew it well, but Santa Ana winds had spread sand across the pavement the day before. As he sped through a turn, his tires slipped on the new layer of grit. Landis fell hard. “He called me and told me to come get him, which is something he never does,” recalls Amber. “I get my daughter and drive up there. He’s sitting on the side of the road, with blood everywhere. He couldn’t put any weight on the leg, so he had to lean on me all the way to the car. He insisted on going home, not to the hospital. He changed clothes and started popping Aleve, telling me that his hip was ‘only’ dislocated. He sat at home for two hours, and then we ended up sitting for three more hours in the emergency room. When they finally saw us, it turned out that he’d broken his hip. They did surgery right away, and, I swear, he was riding a stationary bike within a week.”

Landis still has three pins in his right hip from that operation. “They call them pins, but they’re really bolts,” says Amber, spreading her right thumb and forefinger 4 inches apart to demonstrate their length. “They look like something you buy at Home Depot.”

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There are two prevailing schools of thought about Landis’ chances of winning this year’s Tour. The first is that he peaked too early by winning three big stage races this spring. “Landis has landed,” crowed a friend when I told her I was writing this piece. “That’s your headline. He went too hard, too soon.”

Landis shakes his head when he hears that. “No one in cycling just says, ‘Good job.’ They always look for something to criticize.”

Landis is capable of dropping f-bombs with the Shakespearean aplomb of Samuel L. Jackson, but now he restrains himself. He has addressed this question since winning in Georgia in April, and it clearly irks him. “I didn’t overdo it in the spring,” he says. “Comments like that motivate me, because I look for a way to prove those people wrong.”

His coach, Allen Lim, agrees. A PhD in exercise physiology, Lim carefully tracks each of Landis’ workouts, measuring energy output and strength-to-weight ratio to determine the cyclist’s fitness. “Nobody has seen what he’s capable of doing on the bike. If anything, he’s only raced at 85% of his potential so far this year,” Lim says.

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The second school of thought is more emotional and goes like this: Floyd Landis has issues with authority, and Lance Armstrong in particular. He lost in 2005 because Armstrong got inside his head. If he wins this year, it’s because Armstrong has retired.

It should be said that Armstrong’s talent affected every rider during the last seven Tours. Teams were less likely to gamble on breakaway attacks, knowing that Armstrong was just too strong for those tactics to succeed. But thanks to their differences, Landis is the rider whose performance Armstrong may have affected the most.

Landis denies this, saying he doesn’t let people inside his head. But there may be something to that theory. From 2002 to 2004 Landis raced on Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Team. His job title was what the French euphemistically call a domestique--a servant. Each Tour de France team has nine riders. The best teams select one team leader, while the other eight riders serve as domestiques. They ride in front to break the wind (a cyclist protected from the wind uses one-third less energy than the man in front), dropping back to the team car for fresh bottles of water and doing whatever needs to be done to keep the team leader strong. Landis’ specialty was setting the pace up long climbs. One day of riding, in that capacity, has defined Landis’ career until now.

It was a hot afternoon in 2004, just one day after a pivotal individual time trial (riders race alone against the clock, rather than in the large pack known as the peloton) up the legendary peak, L’Alpe d’Huez. Postal team director Johan Bruyneel had directed Landis to go easy, wanting his legs to be fresh for a hellish 131-mile mountain stage from Bourg d’Oisans to Le Grand Bornand the next day. But Landis finished 21st in the time trial, a surprisingly high placing for a domestique. With his contract up at the end of the season, many observers believed that he had put on a show for teams that might be interested in signing him. Bruyneel scoffed when Landis argued that he had followed orders.

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So Bruyneel put him to the test. He ordered Landis to pace Armstrong from Bourg d’Oisans to Le Grand Bornand. If Landis could do it, he was telling the truth. If he faltered, then he was lying.

Landis responded with one of the most amazing climbing displays in Tour history, setting the tempo over five Alpine summits. There were times when Armstrong could barely keep up. As they crested the last peak, a sun-drenched spot known as the Col de la Croix-Fry, Armstrong realized it was appropriate that Landis get the stage win. The finish line was seven miles away, at the bottom of the mountain.

Armstrong pulled even with Landis. “Do you want to win a stage of the Tour de France?”

Landis’ eyes got wide. He nodded his head vigorously.

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“How fast can you go downhill?” Armstrong asked.

“Real fast.”

Armstrong patted him on the back. “Run like you stole something, Floyd.”

But Landis was exhausted, and couldn’t descend with his usual aggressiveness. The lead pack caught him. It was Armstrong who out-sprinted Andreas Kloden for the surprise stage win. When Landis crossed the line 13 seconds later, he and Armstrong hugged. I happened to be standing next to them as Armstrong confided how badly he had wanted Landis to get the win. Each man had a giddy smile creasing his face. “That’s OK,” Landis exulted, “I had nothing left.”

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That friendship was but a memory when Landis signed with Phonak after the 2004 season. Armstrong felt betrayed. During the 2005 Tour, he referred to Landis in four-letter scatological terms. Landis responded with scathing off-the-record gibes at his former friend and teammate. As the race went on, however, Armstrong became stronger with each passing day. Landis, meanwhile, turned from witty to surly as his performance suffered. An early contender to finish among the top three, Landis would struggle to stay in the top 10.

Landis describes the cycling world as “more than just a job. There are feelings involved.” But Landis and Armstrong channel those feelings differently. Both men are control freaks. Both live inside their heads. But Armstrong was an impersonal force during the Tour, a sadomasochistic hero inflicting mental anguish on others while subjecting himself to the horrendous physical suffering required to win. Landis is the lone wolf, a deeply competitive individual more interested in winning than in beating a specific individual. By focusing his rage on Armstrong last year, he played to the Texan’s strengths. Armstrong wanted to win the Tour de France, but Landis just wanted to beat the sole remaining authority figure in his life. When Landis began slipping behind Armstrong, he lost heart. With more than two weeks of racing to go (the Tour has 21 stages and two rest days, 23 days in all), Landis was beaten.

A telling photograph was taken during the 11th stage. The leaders were climbing an alpine moonscape known as the Col du Galibier. Armstrong leads the group. Spread out behind are a phalanx of contenders: Italy’s Ivan Basso, Germany’s Jan Ullrich, Denmark’s Mickael Rasmussen and Landis. Armstrong and the rest are focused straight ahead, looking aggressive, but Landis appears disinterested, off in his own little world. “There came a point when I knew I wasn’t going to win the race,” he says. “It wasn’t like I was going to quit, but I started working for this year, looking ahead.”

Amber is more to the point. “The Tour didn’t quite go as he hoped.”

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Landis refuses to acknowledge that Armstrong had some mental sway over him, or that his departure from Armstrong’s team for the independence of the Phonak squad mirrors the break from his Mennonite roots. I tried to reach Armstrong for this story, but couldn’t because of his busy schedule. Landis, though, says he and Armstrong settled their differences over the winter. “We were friends, then for a while we weren’t, and now we are again,” Landis says with a shrug.

Amber Landis is going down the list of Tour contenders. Armstrong’s shadow no longer looms over Floyd or the rest of the cycling world, and the race is wide open. The course favors a climber and time-trial specialist such as her husband, and she knows it. She reads Web postings and visits cycling chat rooms to keep up on gossip.

I ask, what if Floyd wins? The anonymity would be gone. There would be “Letterman,” “Today” and all the rest. The epicenter of American cycling would shift from Armstrong’s Austin, Texas, to sun-drenched Murrieta. What then?

“I think I’ll throw up,” Amber answers, leaning forward nervously. She is certain that Floyd will be the best rider, but so much can go wrong. One missed turn, one flat tire during a time trial, the sneezing stranger who passes along his cold. She doesn’t want to take anything for granted. “Yeah, I’ll throw up,” she says before cracking a joke. “Then we’ll buy a new house.”

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If that happens, it will be far from Lancaster County, where the Landises senior have made their home for more than 200 years. The name is ubiquitous: There are 105 listings for it in the phone book, and there’s even a region known as Landis Valley. That’s another reason Floyd’s move west showed a pioneer’s courage: It’s one thing for a headstrong young man to leave his family to chase a dream, and yet another to leave centuries of tradition. And whether or not he wins the Tour de France, Landis’ move to California was vindicated a long time ago. If you don’t believe it, ask his parents.

“It’s amazing what he’s done through self-determination and hard work,” says Arlene Landis, her tone at once bubbly and measured. “We’re quite proud of him.” She and Paul Landis now stand firmly behind their son’s career and often attend races. Arlene thinks it’s not what her son is accomplishing that’s so special, but how he’s doing it. “More important than the fame is that he’s living a life of integrity,” she says, “and that’s what counts.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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Floyd Facts

Born: Oct. 14, 1975

Height: 5 feet, 10 inches

Weight: 150 pounds

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Favorite bike trick: Doing wheelies

Hometown: Lancaster, Pa.

European home: Girona, Spain

Full medical definition of broken hip: Complete oblique fracture of the right femoral neck

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Housemate (and training partner) in Europe: Top rival Dave Zabriskie of Team CSC.

Tour de France claim to fame thus far: Doing a wheelie on Champs Elysees in 2002, first (and only) man in race history to do so.


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