To accomplish much you must first lose everything.
My fuse is short and it's lit.
"I'm going to attack today," I told Dave Zabriskie. "At the base of the first climb. Don't know if you heard."
We were standing over our bikes in the tiny Alpine village of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne before the seventeenth stage of the 2006 Tour de France. Thousands of fans pressed against the metal barricades that kept them off the narrow streets and gave the 143 riders still in the race room to sign in, grab a final energy bar, and prepare for another day in hell.
Before noon, the temperature was already near 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and we had 125 miles to cover, with five major mountain climbs before a final descent into the town of Morzine. Onlookers were already using copies of L'Equipe, a French sports newspaper, to fan themselves. There was my picture on the paper, with the headline "Landis a Craqué"— "Landis Cracks." I could feel the people looking at me, pitying me after my performance the day before.
I had blown my chance of winning the Tour. It was humiliating. In Stage 16, I had been in the leader's yellow jersey, worn by the rider with the shortest cumulative time, but early on the last mountain climb of the day I had nothing left. My legs were just empty, and the other contenders sensed my weakness and attacked as hard as they could. It was like I was pedaling backward. I went from leading the race to ranking eleventh overall.
There were only four stages left until we reached the finish in Paris—and only the seventeenth offered me much chance of making up time. The best time to attack is when the terrain is hardest, and only the strongest riders can go. Still, a rider having the best day of his career can only make up maybe three minutes on a rival in a mountain stage. I was more than eight minutes behind.
To the riders, the team directors, the media—to everyone, really—making up an eight-minute gap was unthinkable. It had never been done. It was a joke. "Oh, man, that's gonna hurt," Zabriskie said with a nervous laugh. "Do you think it will work?"
I told him I had no idea, but at that point I didn't really care. I wasn't going to just give up. Winning the Tour had been my dream for more than ten years, and I had worked hard for it. I was going to try the only thing that would still give me a chance: Attacking early. "I don't want to get eleventh," I told him. "I want to win. And if I don't, I don't care if I end up eightieth."
Zabriskie just laughed. He was on team CSC, and he had been one of my best friends since we raced together on the U.S. Postal Service team with Lance Armstrong four years before. In a way, he was right to laugh. Chances were good that I'd end up getting caught by the peloton, as the main pack of riders is known, well before the stage ended. If I were a betting man, I wouldn't have bet on myself. A group of cyclists is far more efficient than one—those in the draft have to churn out only 50 to 60 percent of the power of those at the front of the pack breaking the wind. It was almost certain that I'd shoot off from the front of the pack, ride alone for a while, and then be swallowed up as the group sped to chase me. I'd look like an idiot for even trying.
Fortunately, I've never let the possibility of looking like an idiot keep me from trying anything in life. By my way of thinking, I'd either be spectacular or fail spectacularly— either way I'd make my mark on the 2006 Tour de France.
Word spreads fast in the peloton. As we rolled out of town to cheers of the crowd and reached the open road, all the riders knew exactly what my tactic was going to be. During the first few miles, as we all warmed up, I pedaled around to anyone I could find and started trash talking like it was a joke. They already thought my plan wasn't going to work, but I figured it would be even better if they thought I wasn't taking it that seriously.
"First climb, I'm going," I said to George Hincapie, another old friend from my days on Lance's team. "As hard as I can."
George shook his head. "Aw man, come on," he said. "Please don't do it." George knew that when I went, his day would become miserable. We had already ridden more than 1,700 miles around France in just over two weeks, with the last two days in the Alps covering more than 100 miles per day and taking us up some of the tallest, steepest mountain roads in the country. Many riders were so tired that they weren't sure they were going to make it to Paris—thirty-three had dropped out of the race already. If I attacked early, instead of just another painful day in the mountains, the peloton would have to chase me for five brutal hours. George's teammate José Azevedo, a Portuguese climbing specialist who had been my roommate on Lance's team in 2004, tried to talk me out of it. "Look, why don't you just wait until the last climb?" That was what riders typically did when they launched an attack. He said that if I attacked on the last climb of the day, on the legendary Joux Plane, a seven-mile climb so steep that in the mountain difficulty rating system of five categories, race organizers ranked it in the hardest, hors categorie, or beyond classification, I'd win the stage. "Nah," I said in a joking way, "that's not good enough." Thirty miles in, when the road began to turn upward on the slopes of the Col des Saisies, all eight of my Phonak teammates were at the front of the peloton, ready to attack. I gave the signal, and every one of them lined up in front of me, each taking a turn pulling the rest of us through.
First Miguel Ángel Perdiguero set a ridiculously high tempo, and then Alex Moos, Bert Grabsch, Nicolas Jalabert, and Axel Merckx followed, one after another. The peloton was chaos. Teams didn't have time to mobilize against us. Robbie Hunter took over at absolutely full speed, then Koos Moerenhout, and finally Victor Hugo Peña. I glanced back and saw that the peloton was shattered. Riders were popping off the back of the group. One by one, my guys pulled out of line and faded back, having given everything they had. They had done their job, launching me like a big booster rocket.
The rest was up to me. I took another long look behind me to see if anyone from another team was strong enough to come with me. Oscar Pereiro, who was in the yellow jersey, was already fifteen seconds back and fading fast. There were only four of us left, including Andreas Klöden of T-Mobile, sitting in third place overall, with a good chance to catch Pereiro. "If you want to win the Tour, come with me now," I told him. "We can work together."
Deal making is a classic cycling strategy. I knew we stood a better chance of staying away from the others if we were together than if I went solo. But Klöden said no way, it was too far, it would never work. So I stood out of the saddle and sprinted. That was it. I was alone. By the time I reached the top, I was three minutes ahead of Pereiro. Soon after I started the downhill, my team director, John Lelangue, drove the Phonak team car past the straggling chasers and pulled in behind me. "Good, Floyd. Come on, Floyd," I heard John say into the earpiece of my two-way radio. "Keep going, keep going." I sped down the hill at more than 50 miles per hour.
As I pushed hard up the next climb, Bruce Springsteen's "Badlands" started playing over and over in my head: "I don't give a damn for the same old played out scene, I don't give a damn for just the in betweens."
John kept giving me updates on my lead. By the start of the third climb of the day, the Col de la Colombiere, he said, "Six minutes. Six minutes. Go. Go. Go." And by the top, "Seven forty-five! Go, Floyd. Come on, Floyd." I was actually climbing faster than the chasers. At the bottom of the descent, John said, "Eight forty-five! Eight forty-five, Floyd!" I could hear in his voice that he almost couldn't believe it. At one point, my lead was nine minutes, which even I thought was absurd. They should have been chasing harder, I thought, but everyone was too tired and disorganized. Or maybe they still thought I couldn't do it.
I knew I could do it. My breakaway wasn't so different from how I train at home in the mountains north of San Diego. I ride hard, alone, all day long. The key today was to stay focused, and to be sure that I wasn't going too hard too early.
Pro racers train with power meters on their bikes, little gauges that measure in watts how much force you're putting into the pedals. I'm one of the few riders who uses my power meter in races, so I kept an eye on my watts to pace myself, and dumped water over my head to stay cool.
The temperature reached 104 degrees Fahrenheit in the valleys, and 95 at the summits of the climbs. John drove up the team car next to me, and he and the team mechanic reached out the windows to hand me bottle after bottle of ice-cold water straight from the cooler. I realized early on that when I dumped a bottle of water on my head, my legs would churn out the same watts, but I felt much better.
When you're stuck in the peloton, the team car has to ride far behind and it's hard to take more than ten or fifteen bottles during a stage. But because my lead was so big, the Phonak car was able to follow right behind me. In all, I used eighty-two bottles, only about fifteen of them for drinking. The rest went straight over my head.
In the long valley stretch before the Joux Plane, I leaned forward to put my elbows on my handlebar to mimic the aerodynamic position I use on my time trial bike. I was trying to squeeze every bit of speed I could out of my body. But I didn't have much left.
It's not just that my legs hurt or that my lungs seared with the effort. Those are givens. But when you push your body past a certain point, you enter a whole different area of pain when you can barely will yourself to go on, and it feels like the more you think about it, the less you even care about pushing.
When I got to the base of the Joux Plane, John said, "Six thirty-five, Floyd. Come on. Come on." They were catching me, but that was the last bit of information I heard. I had dumped so much water on myself over the course of the day that my radio shorted out.
I didn't care. It was the last climb, and no matter what the time gaps were, or what anyone might have said in my ear, it was time to spend everything I had left. Thousands of spectators lined the road on the climb, waving flags, screaming, and leaning in close, only to move away at the last second so I could ride through the tunnel of noise.
I got over the top, and then instead of cheering, all I could hear was the wind as I rode downhill. At that point, I knew no one was going to catch me unless I crashed. The backside of the Joux Plane is deceiving, though, with lots of turns that all look exactly the same. You can go full speed through most of them, but there are a couple that suddenly become U-turns, and you only realize once it's too late. I was just careful enough to stay upright.
As I sped in to Morzine, on some level even I didn't believe what I was doing. A few seconds from the finish I looked behind me, just to be sure I wouldn't get passed in the last second. When I saw with my own eyes that I was still all alone, it started to hit me.
I pumped my fist as I crossed the finish line. I did it.
After I got off my bike, I went behind the podium to check the time gap. My wife, Amber, was there. "Oh, baby, can you believe it!" she said as she gave me a big hug.
"It's not over yet," I said. I watched the others come in. Finally, seven minutes and eight seconds after I finished, Pereiro crossed the line in his yellow jersey. Not only did I win the stage, but now I was also close enough to him that three days later I would go on to win the whole Tour.
Eddy Merckx, my teammate Axel's dad, who is the most successful cyclist of all time, walked up to me behind the podium, shook my hand, and said, "Only the big champions do it like that."
I had proven everyone wrong. I stood on the podium with my baseball cap on backward and my sunglasses on my forehead. I stuck both fists into the air and smiled as the crowd screamed.
If things had ended then, my story would be just another part of cycling legend, just another amazing sports feat that people doubted could be done.
But after the podium ceremony, I went to the small trailer used for drug testing. It was the fifth sample I had given during the Tour, just another one of the more than sixty I had given in my career. I dropped my shorts and peed into the cup while the two officials watched me, as usual, and I didn't give it a second thought.
Now it's all I think about.
Text copyright © 2007 by Floyd Landis with Loren Mooney. Published by Simon Spotlight Entertainment, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed with permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.