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A road less traveled

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Farmersville, Pa.-- --To fully digest the story of cyclist Floyd Landis, to grasp how exactly it is that a 30-year-old man with chronic, stabbing pain in his right hip can possibly be contending in this year's Tour de France despite the fact that he will have his hip replaced once the race ends, one must start at the beginning.

One must travel through the endless green and gold cornfields of Lancaster County, and cross over the muddy banks and murky waters of the Conestoga River. Only then, arriving in this quiet town of barely 200 people where Landis was raised, can a visitor truly appreciate how his family's Mennonite faith shaped his character and work ethic as a young man, while at the same time frustrated him to the point of rebellion, leaving him no choice but to move across the country and pursue a dream, despite his parents' promise that he would face eternal damnation if he kept cycling.

Landis' mother, Arlene, is happy to talk about her son's career these days, and the atypical path he took to becoming one of the world's best cyclists. More than a decade has passed since Landis moved away to California to take his shot at racing professionally, and though she concedes that, at the time, it caused considerable strain, any family tension has long since faded.

"He would say we butted heads often," Arlene Landis says of her son's childhood. "But when he was 20 years old, it was tough to tell him that he wasn't old enough to leave the nest. ... I just know that the heavenly father was watching over him."

She'll even, she admits, slip over to a friend's house each day and watch the last hour of the Tour de France coverage on television, something that some of her more conservative Mennonite neighbors might consider heresy.

Mennonites belong to a branch of Christianity that follows the strict teachings of Jesus Christ; its members try to live a simple life to honor and glorify God. Most choose not to watch television or listen to the radio; however, most have electricity, and many drive cars, own computers and wear regular clothes.

'Local boy doing well'

Most people in Farmersville, though, are supportive of Landis.

"A lot of people are excited about him," says John Achenbach, who has lived in the area for more than 30 years and whose daughter went to school with Landis. "I think they feel like he's a pretty humble person, and that they want to see someone from here do well."

On the edge of town, in front of the Farmersville fire department, a sign comes as close to boasting as you'll find in these parts. It declares in plain, black capital letters that Farmersville is "HOME TOWN OF FLOYD LANDIS. TOUR DE FRANCE BIKE RACER. GO FLOYD."

At Farmersville's weekly town auction, where local folks turn out in large numbers to bid on things such as tractors and homemade birdhouses, some wonder what a victory in the Tour de France might mean for the town.

"I guarantee, if he wins this thing, everyone's going to know where Farmersville is," says John Hunter. "But it feels good to hear about a local boy doing well."

Arlene Landis, a warm, outgoing woman who raised six children here with her husband, Paul, a truck driver, says she still gets the occasional disapproving glance from some of the town's residents, but most can't resist following her son's progress in some manner.

Landis, who was a part of Lance Armstrong's U.S. Postal team for several years, is now in his second year as the lead rider for the Swiss team Phonak, and is in second place as the Tour enters its final week. It is difficult at times seeing him ride through such intense pain, but Arlene Landis knows there is no standing in the way of her son's stubborn determination.

"The Bible talks a lot about the great crowd of witnesses cheering us on in life," Arlene Landis says. "Spiritually, I choose to make that connection for Floyd when he is racing. In the Gospels, Paul often uses the analogy of a race to illustrate perseverance. I kind of like that."

There is no perseverance without pain, and Landis has endured plenty of the latter ever since he fractured his hip in a crash while training near his Murrieta, Calif., home in January 2003. The injury - which Landis essentially kept a secret from almost everyone, including his parents, until last week because he was concerned about being prevented from racing - severed the blood supply to his hip bone and began a slow deterioration that doctors call osteoarthritis.

"I can't say that it has any effect on the way I race," Landis told reporters last week in France. "It's not easy to give it a number and say, 'This is how much it hurts.' Whatever happens, I do my best to try to focus on the race itself rather than my hip. And the race, in a way, is therapy for my hip because it consumes everything I think about."

Cycling is no stranger to stories of heroism and courage. By now, practically everyone, even non-cycling fans, can recite the basic facts that fit together to form the legend of Lance Armstrong, the Texan who nearly died of testicular cancer but recovered to win the Tour de France a record seven times. But Landis' journey to the steep slopes of the Pyrenees Mountains has been almost as unlikely.

Growing up in Farmersville, which is tucked just off Route 322 in southeastern Pennsylvania, Landis was raised in a conservative family, but not rigidly so. Landis didn't grow up on a family farm, despite numerous stories that make that claim, though he did grow up surrounded by them. While Farmersville is still one of the few places left in the United States where the horse and buggy remains a popular form of transportation, the Landises drove cars and had computers.

Landis played baseball and the trumpet, earned a reputation as a jokester in his family, and eventually went to a public high school, Conestoga Valley, where he had plenty of non-Mennonite friends. He didn't have television, radio or movies, however, and never touched alcohol or caffeine, in accordance with the basic tenets of the Mennonite religion. His sisters and his mother, to this day, wear head coverings at all times to symbolize their devotion to prayer.

"Everyone talks about the fact that [Mennonites] don't have TV, but I have no regrets about that," Arlene Landis says. "Even when I'm watching the [Tour de France], I see some of these beer advertisements, and I'm just shocked. It really undermines true family values, I think. Plus, without TV, we have so much more time for each other."

Landis had always been a bike enthusiast, ever since he started hanging out at Green Mountain Cyclery in nearby Ephrata, and riding a bike to his favorite fishing holes. But when he started to take it more seriously, and race his mountain bike competitively (he won the first race he entered, held in nearby Brickerville, at 16), his parents began to grow concerned. They made him keep his legs covered by wearing sweat pants during races, even though all the other riders competed in shorts.

"We just felt a little uncomfortable with it," Arlene Landis said.

Things gradually grew more and more tense as Landis experienced more success, winning races in bunches, including the National Off-Road Bicycle Association national final in Michigan. Privately, he told some friends that he wanted to race in the Tour de France one day. Eventually, Landis got up the courage to tell his parents he was moving to California. They were not pleased.

"They basically told me I was going to hell if I kept racing my bike," Landis told The New York Times Magazine. "I love my parents, and they're good people, but that didn't make any sense to me. So I knew I had to get out, and the bike was the way."

Move to California

Landis' career took off when he moved to California, especially when he switched to road racing and left mountain biking behind for good. He rode well enough with Mercury Cycling that Armstrong took notice and began courting him to U.S. Postal.

His personal life also blossomed when he met a gorgeous, smart, outgoing single mom named Amber Basile and fell in love. Landis' relationship with his parents began to thaw, too, as they soon realized how happy he was. They even traveled out to see him and meet Amber as well as her daughter, Ryan. Still, what came next was a bit of a shock.

"Floyd called me one day and said, 'Mom, I did something special. I got married,' " Arlene Landis says. "I said, 'Oh my God, get me a chair so I can sit down.' But I got off the phone, and sent a big thing of flowers to them and said, 'Congratulations and welcome to the family.' "

Landis eventually joined U.S. Postal and was a big part of Armstrong's Tour victories in 2002, 2003 and 2004. He earned a reputation for being relentless in the mountains, helping clear a path for Armstrong to dominate other riders. His family even traveled to France in 2004 to watch him race, and Arlene Landis has photo albums filled to the gills with pictures, including several shots of team dinners where Armstrong sits grinning at the table, next to former girlfriend Sheryl Crow.

After the 2004 Tour, though, Landis decided he wanted to blaze his own trail, and left for Phonak. Armstrong considered it a betrayal, even though Phonak reportedly doubled Landis' salary to close to $1 million per year (with a $2.5 million bonus if he wins the Tour de France), and the two sniped back and forth through the media for a while before finally putting aside their differences earlier this year.

"Floyd's success [in this year's Tour] is no surprise," said Jim Ochowicz, president of USA Cycling and a two-time Olympian. "He had a great mentor in Lance; he learned how to win."

In his first year with Phonak in 2005, Landis "slowly evolved into the obvious team leader," Ochowicz said. "He didn't come to France this year as the favorite, but he was certainly in the top 10."

In spite of the bum hip.

Landis almost certainly will need to have the hip replaced after the Tour but still expects to continue his racing career. That's uncharted territory in cycling. For now, his doctors have said the injury can't get any worse.

Landis had three 4-inch screws inserted into his hip after his crash. He told his mother recently that the screws are being "pushed out" and are grinding against his muscle and bone. Landis already walks with a limp, and one of his legs is nearly an inch shorter than the other, but he has told doctors he isn't interested in painkillers. He has had two cortisone shots, but that's it.

"They've been somewhat successful. I can't say they take away the pain altogether and they don't really help with the arthritic pain but with the inflammation," Landis told reporters in France last week.

"I'm sure he [Landis] hurts like hell," said Dr. Bill Howard, director of sports medicine at Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore. "His cartilage is gone; there's no slick, slidey buffer to stop the grind between his hip socket and femur."

The good news is that while sitting on a bike, Landis feels less pain than if he were standing, Howard said. "There's less pressure pushing a pedal than there is in putting all your weight on that joint," the doctor said.

The bad news?

"He's going 150 miles a day," Howard said. "That's no ride in the park."

Mostly, Landis has chosen to mentally block out the agony, pushing the left pedal of his bike with his good leg even harder as he grinds his way up the mountain to compensate, past green and gold fields of corn that look not all that different from Farmersville. It's during these times that Arlene Landis can imagine her son thinking about his favorite poem - Don't Quit, author unknown - which he taped to his wall and eventually memorized long before he left home to chase his dream.

When things go wrong as they sometimes will,

When the road you're trudging seems all uphill,

When the funds are low and the debts are high,

And you want to smile, but you have to sigh,

When care is pressing you down a bit -

Rest if you must, but don't you quit.

kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Mike Klingaman contributed to this article.

The Landis file

Born -- Oct. 14, 1975, Farmersville, Pa.

Lives -- San Diego

Turned pro -- 1999

Height -- 5 feet 10

Weight -- 150 pounds

Team -- Phonak Hearing Systems

Career highlights -- Became the fifth American to wear the yellow jersey as the Tour de France's overall leader this year. Finished first overall in Tour of Georgia, Paris-Nice and Tour of California earlier this year. Also has won the Volta ao Algarve (2004) and Tour du Poitou-Charentes (2000). Raced with Lance Armstrong's U.S. Postal team from 2002 to 2004.

[David Selig]

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