It took Floyd Landis more than half his life to reach the pinnacle of cycling: sipping champagne during a victory lap on the Champs-Elysees as winner of the Tour de France and heir apparent to Lance Armstrong.
His fall began four days later, when a drug test came back positive.
Four years after that, he is still falling.
Beaten down from a long, losing battle against the doping charge and failed efforts to revive a high-profile racing career, Landis has become a man who each day, it seems, has less to lose.
After four years of vehemently denying that he had ever used performance-enhancing drugs, he confessed last week to systemic doping during his prime racing years. It was standard practice on Armstrong's team, Landis alleged, and during long training rides, Armstrong himself had advised him on the best ways to cheat without getting caught. His about-face, he said, is an attempt to clear his conscience and clean up the sport for the next generation of riders.
But in a series of e-mail messages released last week by Armstrong's team, Landis, 34, comes across as a desperate man, jealous of Armstrong's star power and bitter that his current team could not even secure a place in the Amgen Tour of California, which concludes Sunday.
In an April 22 message, he complains to the race director about the "money that you leverage from small American teams" that "ends up deposited directly into Lance Armstrong's account as an appearance fee."
In another, sent May 6, Landis accuses Armstrong of "calling my close friends with allegations of alcoholism and insanity." He suggests that Armstrong seek help for his own "mental well-being."
Armstrong has responded coolly. "It's just our word against his, and we like our word," he said.
He dismissed Landis' allegations as another in a long history of efforts by his foes to tarnish his unprecedented seven consecutive victories in the Tour de France.
To be believed, Landis must convince people that, although he was lying before, he is telling the truth now.
Reasons to back him
Among professional cyclists, Landis was always something of an oddball.
Raised in eastern Pennsylvania in a family of devout Mennonites, he would sneak out of the house to ride after dark because his father, who thought cycling a worthless hobby, filled his days with chores. He often rode in sweat pants because he worried that God disliked shorts.
That upbringing, and a persona as an easygoing jokester, endeared him to fans.
"He always had an air of innocence about him," said Loren Mooney, the editor-in-chief of Bicycling Magazine.
There were other reasons to believe — or to want to believe — that Landis' 2006 victory in the Tour de France had been legitimate. He had ridden the race despite a crumbling hip joint, a painful injury that he hid from almost everybody until the competition was underway.
Later that year, he underwent surgery to replace it with an artificial joint.
Whereas some athletes caught doping quietly served suspensions and returned to competition, Landis waged the most aggressive battle ever by a U.S. athlete to clear his name.
He burned through his savings — more than $1 million — to pay his defense.
He drew on fans and friends to raise at least $600,000 more in donations to the Floyd Fairness Fund.
He hired Mooney to co-write a book, "Positively False: The Real Story of How I Won the Tour de France," which was part memoir and part indictment of an anti-doping system he deemed unfair to athletes. It briefly appeared on the New York Times bestseller list.
Landis spent the proceeds on his defense.
He was not interested in making deals. In 2007, he said he turned down an offer from U.S. anti-doping officials to reduce his penalty if he could provide incriminating evidence against Armstrong. His marriage crumbled under the strain of his fight, and he moved to a cabin in the San Jacinto Mountains.
To his believers, his "all-in" wager was proof of his innocence. How could a man who had sacrificed so much to defend himself be guilty?
After Landis was suspended from cycling for two years, a small group of vocal supporters remained.
Now, with his confession, they too may be gone.
"I knew Floyd for a long time, his wife, his stepdaughter," said Christopher Fortune, president of Saris Cycling Group, a former sponsor.
He said he felt like somebody who finds out a spouse has been cheating.
"How well do you know anybody?" Fortune said.
Landis and many people close to him did not respond to e-mail and phone messages. Landis did make an appearance at Saturday's time trial during the Tour of California, still apparently drawn to a sport that has rebuffed him. Fans yelled insults as he left with security guards without speaking to reporters.
He told ESPN.com last week that one of the hardest phone calls he had to make was to his mother in Pennsylvania — to tell her the truth.
His defense had focused on the protocols used by the French laboratory that tested his urine after Stage 17, a brutal, mountainous route on which Landis demolished the field. It would have gone down as one of the most impressive performances of all time had the laboratory not found evidence of synthetic testosterone.
Landis still holds that he did not use testosterone in the race, although he said he had used it at other times, along with routine doses of the red-blood-cell booster EPO and other illegal performance enhancers.
He said he started doping in 2002, the year he joined Armstrong's team and raced in his first Tour de France. In e-mail to cycling officials, he offered detailed allegations, down to how Armstrong instructed him to monitor the temperature of blood bags in his refrigerator for transfusions to increase the oxygen-carrying capacity of racers' blood. In 2004, the last year that he rode with Armstrong's team, Landis said the riders received transfusions on the team bus.
Some of the riders Landis implicated were friends who had spoken out in his defense during his fight against the doping charge.
Despite rumors that have dogged Armstrong throughout his career, no one has ever proved that he has cheated.
A sense of betrayal
Landis' admission was less surprising than the intensity of his fight against the charges.
On the Internet, bloggers and commenters expressed a sense of betrayal.
A reader of Velonews, the cycling magazine and website, wanted a refund of his donation to the Floyd Fairness Fund.
Another wondered about a refund for the book. "I guess at this point your best bet is to take it out of the nonfiction section of your bookshelf and place it in another section of your collection," an editor wrote back.
In early 2009, after Landis finished the two-year suspension, he returned to the thing he knew best: cycling.
On a new team sponsored by his longtime friend and personal physician, Dr. Brent Kay, he entered a local race in the eastern mountains of San Diego County.
"Welcome back," Stu Press, an amateur racer from Los Angeles, told him as they lined up at the start.
"This is weird," Landis responded.
His last race had been the 2006 Tour de France. Now he was racing mostly against amateurs, with no fans, no television cameras, no follow vehicles.
Riding 90 miles through sleet and snow, he came in 16th out 32 finishers.
"He seemed demoralized," Press said.
Landis' performances improved this year, but he failed to land a spot on a team that would allow him to return to racing in Europe and the grueling events on which he had built his career.
On May 5, his friend and sponsor Kay sent an e-mail message to Armstrong, copied to Landis, in which he tried to broker peace between the two men. He suggested that Landis could ride on Armstrong's team for the prestigious Spanish Vuelta.
"I believe Floyd is still capable of great things," Kay wrote.
It was a farfetched idea, and its time had long passed.
Landis was already busy sending his explosive confession and allegations to cycling officials.