In the summer of 2007, Floyd Landis sat on a small stage taking questions from employees at Google. He confidently fielded the first few – how hard is Alpe d’Huez? What’s Lance Armstrong like? – before one woman asked the question.
This would have been around Peak Lie, when Landis was still claiming innocence with an assurance in his voice and a knot in his stomach. Twelve months on from the failed drugs test which stained his stunning Tour de France win, the lie had consumed him. Landis had written an autobiography titled Positively False in which he staunchly denied doping; he had set up the ‘Floyd Fairness Fund’ to raise money for a legal defence, touring the US to gather donations; he had even hacked the computers of the anti-doping lab that caught him cheating. It was like chasing a ball he could never quite catch, running deeper into the abyss.
“A question for you,” begins the woman in the audience, a little trepidatiously. “At the end of a stage where you just kind of die, like for instance 16,” she says, referring to the day when Landis completely collapsed, before producing an astonishing win the following day on stage 17 – the day his urine sample would later test positive for a huge excess of testosterone. “Given that by 16 days you’re really pretty trashed, how do you go through whatever you go through, like ‘I’ve been focused on this race, I’ve just blown it, things are over’... how do you get yourself back on the bike?”
Landis takes a moment to clear his throat and wring his hands. “Umm, they’ve got this stuff called alcohol,” he says with an awkward grin, and the audience laughs. “Have you heard of it?”
We know the real answer, of course, and with the benefit of hindsight as you watch Landis squirm in his chair before deflecting the doping question, it feels as if he is fighting to keep the lie on track. That fighting eventually took its toll, and when he finally came out the other side he fell into a deep depression, hiding out in a shack in the Texan mountains drinking whisky until he was numb.
So perhaps it is no surprise that to speak to Landis now, with a young family, a thriving business and a new cycling venture, is to listen to a man for whom blunt honestly sounds almost like catharsis.
“I went through some dark years there,” he says, sitting in his Colorado home. “I was in a terrible place. To be honest I’m just glad I survived it. A lot of cyclists who went through that didn’t come out alive. I’m in a much better place than I was five years ago, or even with the lawsuit hanging over me the past two years.”
The lawsuit was the $100m federal indictment which Armstrong eventually settled out of court for $5m. Landis’s whistleblowing testimony meant he received around $750,000 (£575,000) – money he could only collect after paying back all $478,454 of the Floyd Fairness Fund to its donors – and he has now invested it in his own professional cycling team.
“It keeps me involved in the sport,” he says of his young team, Floyd’s Pro Cycling, which are registered in Canada rather than the US, where he still harbours resentment over his own legal wranglings in the wake of the 2006 Tour. “I have a pretty conflicted relationship with cycling, and obviously everything that’s happened, but it keeps me involved. Those first few years in the sport racing was the best time of my life, and I take satisfaction from helping guys do that.”
Naturally spending Armstrong’s money on a cycling team was interpreted as something of a deliberate jibe towards his old team-mate, but Landis insists it was not about revenge. “No it’s not about getting back at him. Look, I know we’ll never be friends but I hope he moves on. When I look back I kind of regret [the lawsuit]. Nothing ever came of it. They just said ‘we caught Lance, we caught Lance’ and nothing really changed in cycling.”
He believes the sport is no more trustworthy than it ever was, and the pitfalls that he fell down are still the same threats facing young riders starting out their careers in his team. Does he draw on his own failings? “Absolutely, I give them advice. I’m not in a position to preach from the pulpit but I tell them about my experiences.
“Temptation is still there, for sure. It hasn’t got any more difficult to acquire performance-enhancing drugs. It hasn’t really got any more risky than it was then back then, and human nature certainly hasn’t changed, so the risks are still there. I just tell them my story, that life is long, and that even if there’s only a small chance of getting caught, the consequences are not worth it.”
The emphasis is shifting all the time as race organisers and governing bodies try to stay ahead of the cheats. The UCI has recently ramped up major efforts to tackle the threat of mechanical doping – hidden motors – with scanning equipment at major races. No high-profile cases have surfaced but Landis says it is a real danger – albeit one that even a career-doper finds hard to imagine attempting.
“I laugh when I think about it,” he says. ”There wasn’t the technology in my day, now we know there is. But then I think about what went through my head, and I was like ‘OK, I can take these performance-enhancing drugs and if I get caught I could say this excuse or that excuse and they’ll at least be some ambiguity’. But if you get caught with a motor in your bike, what are you supposed to say?”
As he talks, it is striking just how open and candid he seems in comparison to the falling champion who fidgeted in his seat and lied through his teeth as the walls began to close in. There seems a therapeutic element to his willingness to talk about doping, and yet while discussing Armstrong’s popular podcast, Forward, Landis reveals that he actively avoids being confronted with the darkest period of his life.
“I’ve listened to a couple of them,” Landis says. “He’s quite good at them, he’s got a good voice for it. But I try not to listen because it reminds me of those days.”
They haven’t spoken since the lawsuit was first filed; would Floyd be willing to face Lance again? Would he go on the podcast if he was invited? “I don’t have any remaining animosity towards him. I would go on and sit face to face with him. It would probably be really interesting if it ever happened.”