At 5:19 p.m. on Friday, April 30, 2010, Floyd Landis hit send on what would prove the most consequential email of his life. Addressed to the then-CEO of USA Cycling, Steve Johnson, the email bore the subject line “nobody is copied on this one so it’s up to you to demonstrate your true colors….” It went on to detail, year by year, how Landis and other members of the United States Postal Service team had used illegal performance-enhancing drugs and methods to dominate the sport of cycling and claim victories at the sport’s premier event, the Tour de France. The email, later included in Landis’s 2012 affidavit for a United States Anti-Doping Agency (usada) investigation, clearly implicated many of his former teammates—most famously, the seven-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong (who declined to comment for this article).
It would take more than two years of investigation, but in October 2012, usada concluded that the U.S. Postal Service team under Armstrong and its manager, Johan Bruyneel, had run “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.” Armstrong’s longtime sponsor Nike was the first to abandon him, and the rest followed. In one day, he lost seven sponsors and an estimated $75 million. A few days later, the International Cycling Union (UCI), which oversees international competitive cycling, stripped him of his record seven Tour victories. Attempting damage control, Armstrong sat down with Oprah in 2013, in an interview that went terribly awry; he simply could not muster the appropriate level of contrition. (Among other missteps, he made a fat joke.) Since then, he has been forced to sell his Austin mansion and his Gulfstream jet to pay $15 million in legal fees, plus $21 million in settlements.
But Landis hadn’t stopped with the email to Johnson. Fearing that the Teflon-like Armstrong would emerge from the accusations unscathed, Landis had also filed a whistle-blower lawsuit under the federal False Claims Act, alleging that Armstrong and his team had defrauded the government by taking the U.S. Postal Service sponsorship money while knowingly cheating in races. The federal government joined that lawsuit in 2013; on April 19, Armstrong settled for $5 million. And on the grounds of the whistle-blower suit, Landis will be awarded $1.1 million from that settlement. (Armstrong will also pay $1.65 million to cover Landis’s legal costs.)
When Landis wrote the 2010 email that turned cycling on its head, he was at a low point. A year after his own 2006 Tour de France victory, Landis had become the first man in the race’s 103-year history to be stripped of his title because of a doping conviction. His days were spent in a haze: He consumed as much as a fifth of Jack Daniel’s and 15 double-strength painkillers daily. (He maintains, however, that he was stone-cold sober when he wrote the email.) His house was foreclosed on, his credit ruined. He and his wife, Amber, divorced. “If you are a human in any way and not a psychopath, it’s painful,” he says. “My whole life was completely upside down, and I was not prepared for any of it.”
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A former millionaire, Landis had spent his entire fortune, and then some, on his legal defense. But he has gotten back on his feet, starting a cannabis business in rural Colorado. (The irony—that a life destroyed by one form of dope may be redeemed by another—is not lost on him.) Landis is steadfast that his whistle-blower suit is about justice being done, rather than his own potential windfall. But the money will come in handy in getting his new business off the ground.
Landis grew up in Farmersville, Pennsylvania, in a conservative Mennonite family. Like the Amish, some Mennonites avoid modern technology. Though his family had electricity, there was no radio or television to occupy young Landis’s time. So he rode his bike.
He saved enough money to buy his first real mountain bike at age 15, and promptly won the first race he ever entered with it, wearing sweatpants. In 1993, during his senior year of high school, Landis won the U.S. junior national championship, and his career took off. USA Cycling sent the 17-year-old to France to represent America at the world championship. It was his first time on an airplane. “The trip was fairly traumatic,” he told me. “I should have taken that as a sign.”
Performance-enhancing drugs have been central to competitive cycling for as long as the sport has existed. Early-20th-century riders in the Tour de France took the dangerous stimulant strychnine and held ether-soaked handkerchiefs to their mouth to dull the pain caused by propelling a bike for thousands of miles.
But Landis claims never to have used performance-enhancing drugs before meeting Armstrong. He trained obsessively, once riding his bike 24,000 miles in a single year. His first professional contract, for the Mercury team in 1999, was worth $6,000.
By 2002, Armstrong had already won three Tours and was looking to fortify his U.S. Postal Service team to compete for a fourth. Landis, still a drug-free athlete by his own account, was showing promise; he had recently placed fourth at the Tour de l’Avenir, in France. U.S. Postal signed the 26-year-old for $60,000 a year. But from his first bike ride with Armstrong, Landis said, their relationship was tense: “The guy’s a jerk and everybody knows it, but he was surrounded by yes-men, and they were also terrified of him, so they laughed at his jokes even if they didn’t make sense.” The supporting cast of riders around Armstrong were treated more like replaceable cogs than essential components, easily swapped out for any number of other riders.
“Once I got to Postal it was like, ‘Look, there are no half measures here,’ and we openly discussed doping pretty much on every bike ride,” Landis said. He claimed in his usada affidavit that it was Armstrong who handed him his first performance-enhancing drug, a pile of 2.5 milligram testosterone patches. He then participated in the popular but illegal practice of conducting blood transfusions: Cyclists would draw blood in the off-season, bag it, and reinfuse it into their body during races for a boost of oxygen-carrying red blood cells.
By 2004, the Armstrong universe had become so unpleasant for Landis that he began shopping around for another team. U.S. Postal wanted to keep him, but it was offering far less than he could find elsewhere. As negotiations grew contentious, Landis said, the team had Armstrong call to sweet-talk him. “That lasted about two minutes, then he spent 45 minutes telling me how much he hated me and he was going to destroy me,” Landis said.
Landis’s resentment festered. During the 2004 Tour de France, while still riding with the U.S. Postal Service team, Landis signed for the next year with the Swiss professional cycling team Phonak. He would finish the Tour helping Armstrong race to a sixth victory in Paris, and when Armstrong retired after his seventh Tour win the following year, amid a swarm of doping allegations, Landis became a favorite to win in 2006.
And win he did. For four days, Landis would be considered the best cyclist on Earth. Despite a collapse on Stage 16 of the Tour, which left him at a seemingly insurmountable time disadvantage, Landis pulled himself back into contention over the French mountains on Stage 17 in what remains possibly the most spectacular single-day ride in cycling history. At the time trial two days later, he recaptured the lead, and went on to win the Tour—rolling into the Champs-Élysées flanked by his Phonak teammates—by 57 seconds.
But a few days afterward the team manager called with life-changing news: Landis had failed the drug test he’d taken after that magical Stage 17. Using a method that examined the atomic makeup of the testosterone in his urine, a French laboratory later found that Landis had used synthetic testosterone.
At his first press conference after the results were announced, he attempted a paltry excuse, blaming the findings on his naturally high testosterone levels. In subsequent interviews he pointed to the two beers and at least four shots of whiskey he’d consumed the night before the stage. Armstrong—who presumably realized that if Landis fell and flipped, he himself could be next—phoned to encourage Landis to be more forceful in his public denials, Landis claims. “He was practiced at this and I wasn’t, so he told me I had to speak with more conviction,” Landis remembered. “It was completely self-serving. Lance hadn’t talked to me in years before that call.” Nonetheless, he doubled down. He mounted a protracted and expensive battle to assert his innocence, even starting an organization, the Floyd Fairness Fund, to raise money for his fight against the charges. He also published a book titled Positively False, in which the author Loren Mooney helped him explain his miraculous Stage 17 ride and his cycling success much as the journalist Sally Jenkins had done for Armstrong in his equally ironically titled biography, It’s Not About the Bike. Both narratives now read more like fiction.
In June of 2008, the Switzerland-based Court of Arbitration for Sport upheld the two-year doping ban imposed on Landis by usada. Landis had exhausted his appeals. To this day, he maintains that although he used performance-enhancing drugs to cheat in races during the latter part of his career, he was not on testosterone during the 2006 Tour, and was somehow set up to take a fall or be made an example of. usada’s CEO, Travis Tygart, publicly urged Landis to acknowledge his mistake and come clean. Friends abandoned him. Under threat of criminal prosecution, he agreed to pay back the $478,354 he had raised from donors, on false pretenses, for his defense.
Since Landis’s days as a professional athlete, his features have softened, from borderline emaciated to prototypically American. As we enter a restaurant bar in Golden, Colorado, no one recognizes him. His jeans are loose-fitting, and his hair is an awkward length that requires almost constant attention to keep out of his eyes. He seems happy and, quite possibly, at peace with his life.
In 2016, he launched his marijuana business, Floyd’s of Leadville, which specializes in treating athletes with cannabis-infused analgesic creams, tinctures, and softgels. After almost a decade of using opioids to quell the pain left in his own body from eight years of professional cycling—he had his hip replaced in 2006—Landis discovered that the powerful anti-inflammatory component of marijuana, cannabidiol, could accomplish similar results without the horrific side effects. Now opioid-free, Landis believes in its potential: “This stuff has done so much for me.”
I asked Landis, before the settlement was announced, about the prospect of the whistle-blower suit making him rich again after his fall from grace, but he demurred: “I don’t care about the money. I don’t care if I get anything out of it.” Likewise, when I asked him his feelings about taking down his old antagonist, he said only, “It was never about Lance in the first place. But I had a choice to come clean or not, and if I did, it was going to be me against Lance, because he was going to fight.”
What he was really interested in talking about is what he sees as the ongoing corruption in the upper echelons of cycling. Since he blew the doors off the sport’s omertà, cycling has ostensibly cleaned up its act. But Landis believes that the speeds at which cyclists are now riding—on the same sections of European roads he raced—haven’t slowed enough for that to be true, and mounting evidence seems to point to, if not outright doping, at least gray-area techniques.
Take Team Sky, from Manchester, England. “Team Sky looks exactly like what we were doing—exactly,” Landis said, referring to its current dominance of the cycling world. “So they were able to do that without drugs, but we weren’t? People haven’t evolved over the last eight years.” Sky has won five of the last six Tours, but the legitimacy of its champions has come under scrutiny. A U.K. parliamentary-committee investigation recently concluded that Bradley Wiggins, the 2012 winner, had crossed an “ethical line” by abusing the Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) system, which allows an athlete to take banned drugs in order to treat medical conditions. The committee accused him of using corticosteroids to improve his power-to-weight ratio ahead of the race, rather than for the stated purpose of treating asthma. (Both Wiggins and Team Sky have denied crossing any lines to enhance performance.) Wiggins’s former teammate and successor, Chris Froome, who won the past three Tours, failed a drug test during his winning effort at the 2017 Vuelta a España; he had twice the allowed limit of the asthma drug salbutamol in his system. (Froome has denied any wrongdoing, and an International Cycling Union investigation is ongoing.)
In this drama without heroes, Landis doesn’t think that the disgrace he and Armstrong have undergone has ultimately done much good for the sport. “Taking me down and taking Armstrong down did nothing,” he said. “It was an utter failure because the UCI and wada [the World Anti-Doping Agency] are still lying to kids and making them think that they can become top athletes clean. And they know that you can’t.” (The UCI said that the TUE system was strengthened in 2014 and is now “fully safeguarded.” wada said that it is becoming more and more difficult for athletes to cheat without getting caught, and that it is possible for athletes to succeed without doping.)
I asked Landis how he felt about being considered among the best cyclists in history. “I don’t care, and I don’t even want to be on the fucking list,” he said. “Leave me out of it.”
This article appears in the May 2018 print edition with the headline “The Man Who Brought Down Lance Armstrong Isn’t Done With Him Yet.” It has been updated to reflect the settlement of the lawsuit against Armstrong.