When Joe De Sena met Floyd Landis for the first time a few years ago, through a mutual acquaintance, he did what he often does when he meets someone for the first time. He issued him a challenge.
Spartan's founder challenged the retired cyclist to compete in La Ruta de los Conquistadores, a three-day mountain bike race across Costa Rica. Taken by De Sena's unmistakable charisma and confidence in him — "He's a very good salesman," Landis remembers — he initially agreed. But the more he read about what is widely regarded as the hardest mountain bike race in the world, and after hearing Lance Armstrong's comments about its absurd difficulty — "It's actually kind of silly how hard it is," he once remarked — he decided that he wasn't in any kind of condition to attempt it. Despite De Sena's repeated assurances that he would be fine, Landis opted to back out.
During this period of Landis' life, the original winner of the 2006 Tour de France — he was later disqualified after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs — was not in a good place. Reeling from the public humiliation of his two-year ban from cycling and his inability to find a team when it ended, not to mention the seemingly endless supply of lawsuits and allegations that he was embroiled in, the now-45-year-old fell into a rut of drinking beer every night to escape the noise.
In addition to his habit of imbibing nightly, he also fell drastically out of shape. In the years following his retirement in 2011, he hardly exercised, never riding more than 10 times a year. When Landis was in peak riding shape he generally weighed between 145-150 pounds. All of a sudden, he realized that he had ballooned up to 220.
"I definitely used alcohol as a crutch," Landis admits. "I didn't want to be on my bike. I didn't want to have to talk to people about bikes. I didn't want to be seen on it ... For a lot of reasons, many of which were my fault, cycling ended with a very negative experience for me, and I kind of associated negative things with it."Embed from Getty Images
'I've Gotta Get My Shit Together'
In 2020, as COVID-19 was wreaking havoc and locking the world down, Landis came to the realization that he had to turn his life around, and he had to do it now.
"I've gotta get my shit together," he remembers telling himself. "I need to find something to focus on, some kind of event so I have a reason to go train."
Reenergized and recommitted, he reached back out to De Sena, who issued the same challenge as before: Race La Ruta. He agreed yet again. But this time, he promises, he'll be there.
And that's not the only race he's set to do. De Sena, taking advantage of Landis' newfound desire and willingness to push himself to the brink after so many years of not training, actually convinced the former U.S. Postal Service cyclist to do two extraordinarily demanding mountain bike races in the span of six grueling weeks.
Prior to La Ruta, which will take place on Nov. 4-7, Landis will head up to Vermont on Sept. 25 for Woodsplitter, a six-hour, 20K loop course race held in Pittsfield, near De Sena's farm. (Landis fondly recalls competing in Mount Snow as a kid, and is eagerly anticipating returning to Vermont in the fall.)
Though he's not back to his prime weight of 145-150, he has slimmed down considerably, to 165, and he's riding 200-300 miles weekly. And most importantly, he hasn't had a beer in nearly two years.
But even as he eases back into shape, the reality of the situation is that he hasn't raced competitively in over 10 years. After all that time away, the slightly apprehensive Landis doesn't expect to win. His goal is to finish strong and, as he describes it, "avoid complete humiliation." He also acknowledges that, at the outset, he fully expects to regret his decision to commit, but he knows that that will ultimately be replaced with a feeling of euphoria he hasn't experienced in years.
"I'll never forget that acute feeling of misery and pain and immediately regretting that you signed up for it in the first place," Landis says, remembering past races and simultaneously anticipating the two upcoming. "But I know how it feels when you're done, and the exhilaration that comes. If you know what it feels like [to do a bike race], you know exactly what I'm talking about. And if you don't, you should try it. You feel like a kid."
'It Still Feels Profoundly Unfair'
Landis, who currently owns and operates a Colorado-based CBD company called Floyd's of Leadville, doesn't shy away from his past controversies. He understands that people have very strong opinions on the matter, and they'll always remember him for his notable place in the performance-enhancing drug scandal that made headlines across the globe, and his indelible tie to Armstrong. Regretful, he acknowledges that he hasn't quite come to peace with it, but he also maintains that he doesn't spend time brewing over what happened.
He also won't deny that, when he reflects on what occurred, he still harbors some resentment. He's the first to admit that he cheated, and that his use of PEDs was unethical. But how much of the fallout was justified, and how much of it was due to the public's, and the sport's, need for a fall guy?Embed from Getty Images
"It still feels profoundly unfair," Landis says. "And I don't like feeling like things are unfair. I don't think the world is fair, but I don't really like to sit around and think to myself, 'Why did this happen? Why did that happen?' That's just the nature of the world. Things are unfair. My way of managing it in my head is to try not to think about it, unless I'm in a very specific state of mind where I know it's not gonna lead me to obsess over it."
But the past is in the past, and the future is bright. With an up-and-coming business, a healthier body, a fresh outlook on life, and two new races on the horizon, things are looking significantly better than they have in a long time.
And while he can't guarantee where he'll finish in Vermont and Costa Rica, one thing he can guarantee is that he's going to have fun.
For the first time in as long as he can remember, before the allegations and the drama and the lawsuits and the scandals, he's going to enjoy a bike race. This isn't about winning; it's about riding — just like it once was, and how it always should be.