Closure is tricky when someone’s foot is in your door. What Floyd Landis believed would be a liberating truth more than two years ago -- I doped, Lance doped, we all doped -- has turned into a purgatory crafted by Armstrong’s swift-boating team of D.C. lawyers, handlers and political pals. Mess with Texas, and the mess never ends.
“I guess I’m still looking for an event to stop everything,” Landis said in a recent phone interview with Sports on Earth. “In my mind, I’ve wanted some type of an end, something final. Not that I was delusional and believed coming clean would fix everything on the spot, but it’s taken a long time -- a couple of years and still going.”
There are no periods, only ellipses for Landis. The past three weeks have meant more of the same. On Aug. 23, Armstrong abandoned his fight against doping charges leveled by USADA, which will effectively strip him of his seven Tour de France titles. A day later, Landis walked out of a San Diego courtroom in a suit and tie after agreeing to pay $478,000 in restitution to 1,700 suckers who contributed to the Floyd Fairness Fund, a legal defense account set up when the cyclist from Amish country claimed that he was innocent of the doping allegations that left him stripped of his 2006 Tour de France title.
“Some will always say what I did was unforgivable,” Landis said. “But I want to make it right, as right as I can.”
A clear path to reconciliation? The winding course offers no glimpse of a finish line. In May of 2010, Landis reportedly filed a qui tam whistleblower suit against Armstrong under the U.S. False Claims Act, which grants citizens with evidence of government fraud the right to sue on behalf of the government. In this case, the U.S. Postal Service -- which paid millions to Armstrong for his title wins -- would be the beneficiary, along with Landis, if damages can be proven. The lawsuit is under seal and Landis has never confirmed its existence, but this much is apparent: The suit is languishing in a legal limbo of extensions. The Department of Justice has yet to make public its intentions to join or move the case forward. The DOJ is apparently like everyone else: awaiting clarity.
The thick case file that USADA is currently putting into document form may be the smoking start gun. Upon receiving the evidence, perhaps as soon as the end of this month, will the UCI (cycling’s governing body and longtime defender of Armstrong as its cash cow) follow USADA’s lead and officially expunge Armstrong from the record books? If so, the whistleblower suit would have momentum and a delicious irony: Any settlement offer by Armstrong would have to be approved by Landis. If Armstrong’s glory is scrubbed from existence, other companies could line up at Armstrong’s payment window to claw back sponsor dollars.
The USADA book of secrets may also create new lines of inquiry for the public and police.
Will the faithful, those who have stuck by Armstrong because of his role as an anti-cancer warrior, discover that the self-described atheist was a false prophet? Did he double-dare cancer by surviving it only to drug his body to win, and put the health of his teammates at risk by coercing them into doping up, too? Did Armstrong leverage his access to cancer research as a means of obtaining experimental drugs that were sitting in lab refrigerators? For federal officials, will new evidence spur a second criminal investigation -- you can hear the groans from the dope-weary public -- that would result in a re-opening of drug-trafficking, money-laundering and wire-fraud pursuits surrounding Armstrong and his Tailwind team?
For anyone not named Armstrong, the doomsday scenarios would be enough to easily do in the boss of a massive doping system. But few others have so many friends in high places. Each day that passes allows time for Armstrong’s D.C. operatives, such as Mark Fabiani -- a former White House special counsel -- to do what they do best: create cloud cover for their client. They swift-boat the truth by injecting doubt into facts, by turning those who come clean (Tyler Hamilton, Landis) into dirty little traitors and by turning the messenger (USADA) into a carrier pigeon of revenge.
It takes a village to raise suspicion. So it was no surprise when a letter dated Aug. 30, 2012, embossed with the gold California seal on it, was addressed to two Senators: the Honorable Barbara Boxer and the Honorable Dianne Feinstein. Two-dozen lawmakers signed a request for the senators to take a full review of … Armstrong? No, USADA. Why?
One dark answer is that if USADA’s evidence against Armstrong is legitimized as legally damning, it will look as if California U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte -- whose appointment was supported by Feinstein -- decided to end the federal investigation into Armstrong under political pressure. Privately, investigators seethed over Birotte’s abrupt announcement, which went unexplained when it was made the Friday afternoon before the Super Bowl in February. They were stunned; Landis was, too.
“I used to say to people -- and I never thought it would be me -- but I’d say, sooner or later, if Lance keeps treating people as poorly as he does, someone is going to say, ‘Screw it,’ and expose everything,” explained Landis. “You would think inside the federal investigation someone would say, ‘OK, this is wrong how this ended and I’m going to come forward.’ But I don’t know, we may never find out what happened.”
There are no cleansing moments when everyone from doping peers to doping police who try to pry an admission of guilt from Armstrong are met with the same line of his defense: This is a witch hunt. There is some truth to the claim because, yes, Lance Armstrong is considered by many to be something on the order of a witch. Not in the Salem-esque context, but in the potions he allegedly pumped in his bloodstream and the spell he has cast over politicians, pundits and the public, who conflate a cause with immunity.
“I understand why he merges the two -- cancer and innocence -- because it has served him well,” Landis said. “For him, it’s too complicated to unwind it all now and admit to doing drugs and cheating and all the rest. He can’t because there is no good outcome. Keeping it up is the best way to limit the damage.
“I have no way of knowing how many people actually believe him. He’s good at getting stories planted at well-respected news sources, but it’s clearly not based on reality.”
Landis doesn’t pretend to be the noble party here. He cheated. He baited money out of adoring fans. He followed the cycling code of deception. “It’s a terrible feeling to have been part of it,” said Landis. Remorse is only natural for all of the cyclists who played a part in an Armstrong fairytale that captivated the world.
Landis, 36, served out his ban and, in 2010, rode professionally for a year. He said he has no plans to return to pro cycling now, and is looking at enrolling in college.
“I can’t predict what the end result is for Lance or how he will feel about it,” said Landis. “I know him pretty well from the years I rode with him, and I doubt that it’s a matter of feeling guilty or about what’s right or wrong. For him, it’s just about making the most of the cards he’s got. He’s going to play the game, and it’s not about how he’s going to feel about it later -- remorse or guilt or whatever -- because that’s not how he thinks.”
Armstrong thinks like he rides: elbows out, pushing through every opening. As long as there is a sliver of time -- USADA can only document evidence so quickly -- there is a chance for Armstrong to work a corrupt cycling system that was created to protect cheats. As long as that possibility exists, Landis will live with a future freighted by uncertainty. To cope, he climbs back on his bike. “When I ride now, it’s more like what it was when I started as a kid,” Landis said. “Now I can ride and try to process life. It was my way out of Pennsylvania and the way I grew up. It’s what I do to figure out what’s next. The truth is, I don’t know the answer because what I’m going through is still not over.”