Landis emerges as the Tour’s iron man
American Floyd Landis has been on his bike during this year’s Tour de France for the equivalent of more than two full days. Not one second has been comfortable. The pain in his degenerative hip comes and goes, Landis recently told The Associated Press, but it never completely ceases. The ache of bone grinding on bone is an everyday reality. It’s with him on every push of the pedal. Every hill climb on narrow backcountry roads. And on most nights when he tries to close his eyes. The Tour is demanding enough. The discomfort that Landis endures in addition to the normal rigors is incomprehensible. One doctor recently told the AP, “For the average person, on a pain scale of 1 to 10, this would probably be a 50.” The ball of his hip, according to published reports, is deteriorating and no longer fits neatly in its socket. The bone’s irregular shape has destroyed surrounding cartilage and it is now rubbing directly on bone. With little blood flow to the affected area, Landis is experiencing osteonecrosis, or bone death. It’s the kind of injury and excruciating pain that made uber-athlete Bo Jackson say enough is enough in 1994.The 30-year old Landis, whom many pegged as the man to emerge from Lance Armstrong’s shadow and challenge for this year’s crown, is showing the same grit and determination that became his former U.S. Postal Service teammate’s calling card. And he’s winning, too.After six grueling hours Thursday in the Pyrenees, Landis, leader of the Phonak team from Switzerland, emerged as the overall leader. His exploits in Stage 11 – widely considered the Tour’s hardest – earned him the coveted yellow jersey and an eight-second lead over his nearest competitor, Cyril Dessel of France. In the process, Landis vaulted himself four spots in the standings.The trek from Tarbes, France, to Pla-de-Beret, Spain, spanned 128 miles and included five unforgiving descents – one on a direct route to the finish line. The stretch included one climb, on an average gradient of 7.7 degrees, that topped out near 7,000 feet. The challenge was stiff enough to make others wilt. Miraculously, Landis stood tall.Judging by what he’s already endured, we shouldn’t be surprised. He’s been dealing with pain since the fall on his bike during training in 2003 that began his troubles, according to The New York Times. In the fall of 2004, Landis underwent a process called decompression, where he had holes drilled into the bone in an attempt to help alleviate pressure.Landis told the Times he would’ve gone forward with hip replacement surgery two years ago had it not been for his cycling career because the pain is overwhelming. Somehow, he continues to compete at the highest level; Landis took home the 2006 titles at the tours of California and Georgia as well as the Paris-Nice stage race. Competitors continue to laud Landis, despite the circumstances. Russian Denis Menchov, Thursday’s stage winner, told the AP, “Floyd Landis is without a doubt the favorite.” Imagine if he was near full strength. Even 90 percent.How long Landis will last is anyone’s guess. Can his hip hold up in the Alps next week? Can he hang on for just 10 more days as the push for Paris reaches its pinnacle? We’ll have to wait and see. There’s little reason to underestimate him.Armstrong captivated a nation with his courage after overcoming testicular cancer to win an unprecedented seven Tour titles. Greg LeMond defied the odds when he overcame a hunting accident to capture two of his three Tour titles. The 1986 tour winner returned in dramatic fashion, capturing back-to-back titles in 1989 and 1990. Whether Landis deserves to breathe the same rarefied air as his American cycling predecessors remains to be seen. But he has already succeeded in providing the most compelling and inspirational storyline of this year’s Tour. He has given the casual tour observer a reason to tune in. He can’t let us down – not after what he’s already accomplished.We will be rooting for him much like we did for Lance. We will be sharing his pain for every mile from Pla-de-Beret to the Champs Elyses. Jon Maletz, aka “The Hammer,” can be reached at email@example.com
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