By Floyd Landis with Loren Mooney
Reviewed by Ed Pavelka
You can’t judge a book by its cover, and the words on this one give the wrong impression. The main title can be taken two ways, one of which is damning to the owner of that face glaring at the reader. Second, how Floyd Landis won the 2006 Tour de France isn’t much of what “Positively False” is about. Nor do many of us need a book describing the race. We either saw it on TV or read the details, and Landis’s account of the fateful 16th and 17th stages doesn’t say much that we don’t know.
This book is mainly about Landis’s young life and the positive drug test that came to light three days after the Tour. The reader is taken through the long, dark period that began then and culminated with a U.S. Anti-Doping Agency arbitration hearing in mid May 2006.
“Positively False” has been published before a USADA decision has been rendered. Landis could be found guilty of testosterone violations and barred from racing for two years. Or he could be the first U.S. athlete to successfully appeal a positive test — and that would turn the anti-doping establishment on its head.
Landis says he’s dedicated not just to winning his case but to spearheading worldwide improvement in doping controls for cyclists (and all athletes).
Here’s a telling passage: “The sport of cycling is sick and in need of major reform. The UCI [International Cycling Union] has way too much control over athletes’ lives. We riders need to form a true union to protect ourselves. Without us, there is no race. But as it is, the UCI profits from our efforts, and then fails miserably to protect us from injustice.”
The main injustice, in Landis’s view, is the anti-doping system. He hammers the point that athletes are presumed guilty unless they have the money to beat overwhelming odds and prove that a positive test is mistaken. Landis asks, “Most of the USADA’s funding comes from Congress, so why is it allowed to have a system of justice in which it is the lawmaker, the police, the prosecution, and the jury?”
But what about his case? How did his urine test come up positive for synthetic testosterone after his epic solo victory in stage 17? That ride brought him back from 11th place and put him in position to win the Tour in the time trial two days later.
Landis boils it down to this: “My guess is that the lab made mistakes, and for some reason it pushed my test results through the system anyway. The UCI jumped on the supposed positive, blindly trusting the science and making a public announcement so quickly that here was no going back.”
That may sound simplistic, but Landis provides pages and pages of arguments in his favor. Fortunately, most of it is clear and readable, no doubt thanks to co-author Loren Mooney, an editor at Bicycling magazine. (In books like these, it’s a safe bet that the celeb author does a lot of talking on tape but never actually writes a word.) But if it’s hard science you want, there’s an appendix by longtime Floyd friend and coach Arnie Baker, M.D., who lays out four arguments (among the dozens he has assembled) for dismissing doping charges.
The positive testosterone test is introduced on page 181 of “Positively False.” The remaining 125 pages are about doping, again giving lie to the book’s subtitle. Those pages make a strong, if one-sided, case for laboratory screw-ups. When you finish reading, it’s easier to believe Landis’s contention that he is the innocent victim of an incompetent, even corrupt system.
Landis sidesteps two key issues raised by his Tour performance and doping case.
First, I’ve always wondered about his incredibly strong ride in stage 17, one day after bonking dreadfully. How do you feel the day after a bonk? Are you able to solo away from your peers — the same guys who creamed you the day before — in high heat for three hours in mountainous terrain? Could you do it after staying up late drinking beer and whiskey? In my experience, a bonk as severe as what Landis suffered makes a rider weaker, not stronger.
So I was interested to read Floyd’s explanation. Here it is: “It’s quite common for a cyclist to have a terrible day, and then come back to have the next day be his best.” From terrible to best, quite common? I’ve been riding a bike longer than Landis has been alive, but somehow I missed this phenomenon. Unfortunately, he gives no examples of it happening to him or anyone in other events. He attributes his energy rebound simply to eating and drinking after stage 16. (In an interview not addressed in this book, he also denies using an IV to help replenish glucose, electrolytes and fluid.)
Second, I looked for Landis to explain a startling answer he gave during his first doping-related press conference. No one knew yet if his B sample would confirm or absolve him of using testosterone.
Landis was asked flat out: “Have you ever taken performance-enhancing drugs before?”
After a pause, he replied: “I’ll say no.”
That strange answer must have made even his most ardent supporters wonder about his innocence. Landis went on to explain why he didn’t unequivocally deny drug use, but it didn’t make great logic. This book was an unused opportunity to clear that up.
Not Doping Only
Up to the point where doping takes over, “Positively False” is an interesting and readable story of Landis’s youth, family, religion, introduction to cycling, and struggle to make it as a pro.
Perhaps the juiciest section recounts his three years riding for Lance Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service team. Although it was USPS that elevated Landis to a quarter-million-dollar salary, finally enabling him and his family to escape debt and hand-to-mouth living, Floyd doesn’t have much good to say about the way Armstrong and director Johann Bruyneel ran the team.
Like author Daniel Coyle in “Lance Armstrong’s War,” Landis doesn’t genuflect to Armstrong. Neither guy trashes him outright; they let Lance’s own words and actions supply the warts. It’s a refreshing change to read these books after Armstrong’s own airbrushed autobiographies. The guy could be a self-centered, ruthless SOB to teammates as well as the competition, but nice guys probably don’t win seven Tours de France.
Also interesting is Landis’s fallout from the Mennonite religion. He tells of a relatively happy childhood in an austere home, but when he started thinking for himself as a teenager his faith began breaking down. Cycling exposed him to the real world and made him worldly. Still, he expresses great respect for his parents and they, in turn, have supported him as his career struggled, peaked and then fell apart. They say they don’t care if he’s guilty of doping; they just want him to tell the truth.
Landis says he’s doing just that. He does make convincing arguments. It’s entirely his point of view, of course — his soapbox without anyone’s challenge. He admits in a note to readers, “Conversations and events have been recounted to evoke one or more participants’ recollections of what was said or what occurred, but are not intended to be a perfect representation.”
Fair enough. And now we wait to hear the other side, the verdict of the USADA panel. After that, we’ll learn if Landis or the prosecutors will appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, the final authority. If money allows, Landis says he’s prepared to go all the way. He warns in his book, “Once I put my mind to something, I see it through to the end, no matter how hard things get and no matter how long it takes. I am not going to quit, and I am not going away.”