Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Why Now, Floyd?

Yesterday was the first rest day of the Tour de France. Though Serguei Gonchar (his name has a dozen spellings, so don't try to correct me) leads the race, all eyes were on American hopeful Floyd Landis, currently second. Gonchar is not expected to fare well in the mountains, so many consider Landis the virtual leader for the general classification (to non-cycling fans -- the G.C. is what Lance Armstrong won, the fastest time for the entire race).

But Landis dropped a bomb that very few expected: he has been suffering for several years from a degenerative hip ailment and will likely need hip replacement surgery after the Tour.
Doctors said the condition - described as "avascular necrosis" - reduced blood flow to the upper part of his right femur, broken during a crash in 2003. The reduction of blood to the bone left a rotten knob grinding inside the hip socket, causing intense pain when he walks, rides and even sleeps.
The damage is irreversible; it's just a matter of how long he can bear the pain. This news is incredible in light of all that he has achieved this year, winning several major stage races.

What I can't figure out is why Landis chose the Tour's first rest day to reveal this shocking news. His official reason for going public is "to get the story right." Most Americans don't realize what a circus the media coverage of cycling is in Europe, especially during the Tour. Some over-excited journalist was bound to connect half the dots wrong and spin some wacky tale, forcing Landis and his team into damage control mode. From what I know about him, I'd also like to believe he spilled his guts because the pressure of trying to keep it secret was bothering him. He has always seemed like a straightforward kind of guy.

But letting your opponents know you have a major weakness just before the going gets tough isn't a normal strategy. Is he trying to craft a story that will make him a sympathetic favorite, a la Armstrong after cancer? That seems too cynical and calculating for Landis. Maybe he is trying to lower the expectations of the press and fans. That might not be a bad move -- it certainly takes off some pressure. Perhaps someone was questioning his medical dossier, which includes cortisone for the pain. That wouldn't surprise me in light of all the doping accusations lately. Or maybe he had reason to suspect one of his confidants was about to spill the beans.

Although Landis' reason -- to make sure the story is told correctly -- may be honest, the timing is the curious part. Landis could have explained all of this at a pre-Tour press conference, or anytime over the last couple of years for that matter. But he did not. So what has changed in the past week to encourage him to talk now?

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