Friday’s Foaming Rant: the Landis blues

Sympathy for the devil? Patrick O'Grady muses on Floyd Landis' past and future.

Standin’ at the cross road
I tried to flag a ride
Didn’t nobody seem to know me
Everybody pass me by.

“Cross Road Blues,” by Robert Johnson

I’m tempted to feel sympathy for Floyd Landis.

Landis, who announced his retirement from pro cycling this week, with marks all over his body left by sport directors touching him with 10-foot poles, increasingly sounds like a man left mumbling to himself in the empty living room of a shabby apartment after the repo men have carted off all his possessions and the landlord ordered his eviction.

He spent three years as one of the locomotives pulling Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France train, and when he decided to race for himself he looked like the next Yankee Doodle dandy, winning Paris-Nice, the first Amgen Tour of California, the Tour de Georgia and the Tour de France, all in the same year.

Its beer-thirty for Floyd Landis. But whos buying? Photo: Wil Matthews (file)
It's beer-thirty for Floyd Landis. But who's buying? Photo: Wil Matthews (file)

That was 2006, the year the wheels came off. Now he’s five years older and a damn’ sight poorer, as popular in the peloton as an infected saddle sore, and free to do — what, exactly? Hope for a whistleblower’s payout if Big Tex takes a federal fall? Drawing to an inside straight looks like a sound financial strategy by comparison.

Maybe Landis has some other marketable skills of which I’m unaware. But it seems to me that all the dude has ever wanted to do is ride his bike. He can still do that, of course — just not for money. Not as long as he keeps loudly insisting that professional cycling is a criminal conspiracy on a par with the Mafia, or perhaps the U.S. Congress.

Never having assembled the sort of Praetorian Guard that surrounds Armstrong, Landis started flailing when that positive dope test hit the fan and he’s never really stopped. Along the way, his wild swings have blackened quite a few eyes — the Phonak and Bahati Foundation teams, Greg LeMond and anyone who ever kicked in a couple of bucks to his Floyd Fairness Fund.

Unsurprisingly, the sport has repaid Landis in kind, dismissing him as a serial liar, a drunk and a dingbat whose testosterone-laced cheese has done slid right off his cracker. And I confess it’s hard to keep from spiraling an index finger around one temple when he insists on portraying himself as cycling’s “fall guy,” when he’s just one dirty snowflake in a blizzard of positive tests, or claims in a chat with Cyclingnews that anti-doping efforts are useless (“You can use as much EPO as you want and unless you’re an idiot you’re not going to get caught.”), but controlling legalized doping is plausible (“Monitor it and make sure people don’t hurt themselves. …”).

How’s that work again? Not very well, I’m guessing. The only difference between that world and this one is that we would know for certain that all professional cyclists — the ones who wanted to be successful, anyway — were doping. We still wouldn’t know how much, or with what.

We know what Landis was using, because he told us, finally. He says pretty much everyone else in the sport is cutting the same corners, and that he knew doping would be part of the job when he took a seat at the Tour table. He anteed up. All he wanted to do was get in the game.

All I’ve ever wanted to do is write and draw. What if, after I landed my first pro newspaper gig, the editor had taken me aside and said, “Kid, here’s the thing: We don’t really attend all those dreary governmental meetings, fact-check what people tell us or strive for balance in our coverage. What we do is make it all up. Lie like a rug and the sky’s the limit.”

What would I have done? Would I have behaved more admirably than Landis? Politely declined to participate in the charade and watched more flexible colleagues win the prizes and get the promotions? Or gone all Jayson Blair/Janet Cooke and “worked” my way up to a slot on The New York Times and a Pulitzer Prize?

What would you have done when you met the Devil at that crossroads? Paid your dues, or played his blues?