In part one of this post I talked about my prior relationship with Floyd and also named a few of the folks that might have had a vested interest in seeing Floyd come up positive for synthetic testosterone in the 2007 Tour de France.
In this installment I’ll take a closer look at this contention and talk about the 16th and 17th stages, including a discussion of Floyd’s “miraculous” ride and just how testosterone may have helped or hindered such a performance. I’ll examine also, other possible reasons for his epic effort that it appears to me have possibly been overlooked by Floyd’s friends and foes alike.
Much has been written about drugs and cycling – mostly that professional cycling is one of the most drug riddled sports on the planet and that by in large nearly all professional cyclists use performance enhancing substances at least part of the time. Unfortunately, these statements are both essentially true. Though drug use is nothing new in professional sports there are few examples where systematic use of banned ergogenic substances is so endemic.
This is not a new phenomenon as some would have liked us to believe. Cyclists have been using various compounds nearly as long as the sport has been recognizable in its modern form. From alcohol and strychnine (I kid you not) used by riders contesting six day track events in the 1920’s and before to the use of cortisone and other anti-inflammatory steroids, along with amphetamines in the 70’s and 80’s, to the modern era of steroids, rEPO, blood doping, blood packing, perfuchloro, and even retro-viruses that stimulate local production of nerve growth factor if there’s even the potential that something will aid in the cyclists quest to go faster, go fast longer, or recover more quickly it has been tested, tried, discovered by the governing bodies, made detectable via testing and abandoned for the next tricky thing.
In recent years the testing – and particularly the “in competition” testing – has become so good that it has forced athletes to dope in entirely new ways. Doping has become much more of a science in the past decade as well. Gone are the days of a soigneur with a little black bag fixing you up before a stage when you’re not feeling so hot – we’re now in the time of highly trained, highly paid physicians that are exceptionally knowledgeable about the compounds they are employing to improve the athlete’s performance, the methods of using these compounds for maximum benefit and of course the means of detecting these drugs and how to get around them. It has even been said that the highest paid guy on most teams isn’t the team captain, it’s the team doctor. “Nuf said”.
When I was racing there was certainly plenty of drug use to be seen, from the unsophisticated, lower level pros and teams to the highly professional medical programs employed by the best teams and the best riders. A level playing field? Hardly. But that is not what I’m writing about. I only make this point for one simple reason and it is this: a team like Phonak, that had at least one rider capable of vying for a Tour de France victory is not going to leave doping to chance.
This is not amateur hour – at this level the riders themselves are not self administering pharmaceuticals any more than they are giving themselves (or each other) massages after the stages end. Pulease. We’re talking about major advertising dollars being spent on these teams and the salaries of the top riders. These athletes would no more medicate themselves than a jockey would medicate a Kentucky Derby winning thoroughbred. What this means is that if Floyd doped – or more specifically, since for the purposes of this post we are only talking about the use of synthetic testosterone during the 17th stage of the Tour de France – it is highly (one might even say impossibly unlikely) that such a drug was self administered without the guidance or knowledge of the team physician.
We’ll get back to this in a minute because it is important but first lets talk about what happened on the 16th stage
As you know, Floyd was seemingly in command of the tour up until the 16th stage when he had what can only be described as a catastrophically bad day. Riders in big tours have bad days all the time. It is inevitable that over 23 days of basically non-stop racing on some days you’ll feel good and some days you’ll feel like it would be an upgrade to feel like death warmed over. The key for a GC rider (general classification) is to have bad days on stages where it is possible to fake it through the stage without letting your competitors know how vulnerable you are.
A nice long flat road stage is perfect for making a bad day look like a not so bad day. A stage with 2 “hors” category (above category) climbs plus one 1st and one 2nd category climb is perfectly horrible for that same bad day. When the going gets vertical there is no place to hide, no teammate that can provide meaningful help and no amount of determination that can save you from the inevitable.
Unfortunately for Floyd, his bad day came on stage 16 which was without a doubt one of the most difficult stages of the 2006 Tour. The Yellow jersey, it is said, is a magic fleece and many are the riders who graced with the golden tunic suddenly found themselves transformed from mere mortal work-a-day professional cyclists (if there is such a thing in the European professional peloton) to beings capable of other worldly performances. You only have to play reruns of any previous Tour to see what I mean. Unfortunately, this magic is whimsical at best (Lance it seemed was charmed for a full seven years) and it chose to take its leave of Floyd at the worst possible time.
Apparently Floyd knew almost instantly that his day was going to be long and painful. I can tell you from personal experience that it is one of the worst feelings a professional cyclist can have to wake up with legs that feel like lead, lungs that feel like they’ve been scorched and a heart the size of a hummingbird’s when you’re facing a race of any sort – let alone a 220 km beast like the one facing Floyd. The course he was facing is so difficult that it would pose a truly serious challenge to all but the most extraordinary recreational cyclists to simply ride the distance in a single day, never mind the fifteen prior days and more than 2000km of racing at an average speed of around 47 km per hour leading up to it.
As you know, Floyd hung tough – incredibly tough – up until the final climb to La Toussuire. On those vertiginous slopes he finally cracked and with each stroke of the pedals his competitors drove a stake through the heart of his Tour de France dream. There was nothing left in the tank -it was obvious for all to see.
When I was a pro – and particularly during long time trials which was not my favorite discipline – I used to ask myself this question: ” If someone put a gun to my head right this moment and told me that I must go faster or they would pull the trigger, would I take the bullet? In other words was there another ounce of power I could summon for the effort? If there was you weren’t going hard enough. The correct answer should be “yes I’ll be taking the shot to the head, there’s nothing more I can do.”
I mention this, not so much on account of Floyd but on account of his competitors that were giving him a beating. During races like the Tour the riders have radio communication with their team directors in the cars following the race. These cars in turn are all tuned in to the race radio which is a moment by moment report of what is happening on the road.
The moment that Floyd cracked every director knew it, this in turn meant every rider with a prayer of a decent overall finish also knew it. In an instant all those headsets came alive with directors sportif screaming at the top of their lungs to their respective athletes: “ride, ride, ride – venga, venga, die, die, allez, allez, allez…this is it, this is the race you must go now with everything you’ve got and more!!!” And ride they did. In spite of the heat and the three massive climbs already under their wheels that day the men looking for a GC placing went flat out – most likely as hard or harder than they’d ever ridden in their lives for the remainder of the stage.
It was the kind of effort about which books are written – the kind of effort where you die a little you go so hard. Pain means nothing, fatigue means nothing, vision narrows until you are racing in a black tunnel with barely any sight except the yellow line rolling by beneath your tires. Efforts so extreme that some athletes void their bladders or even bowels without even realizing until later – unless you’ve been there and done this, you simply cannot conceive of an effort like the ones the men who had dropped Floyd made.
At the finish Floyd had ceded 10:04 to Dane Michael Rasmussen, effectively taking him out of realistic contention for an overall victory. Speaking about the disastrous stage, Floyd said something which I found to be very telling. In fact, I believe, and experience dictates that my belief is correct, that what Landis said actually explains everything about what happened the following day.
“I was struggling even on the climbs before that,” Landis said. “I tried to hide it, but I wasn’t good, and then on the last climb there was only a certain speed I could go, which wasn’t very fast.” Floyd Landis following his disastrous finish on the 16th stage of the 2006 Tour de France
As I said, this statement is very telling but what it tells us is not obvious and also probably not what you’d expect….
In the next installment we’ll take a look at what this statement really meant and why it is the real smoking gun of this whole saga…