If Landis is taken away from us, what's left for fans?
To quote Everclear, so much for the afterglow.
We barely got to know Floyd Landis -- barely got to celebrate his stunning Tour de France triumph -- before he was plugged in alongside the rest of the sketchy characters in sports' alleged doper lineup. One day, he's the gritty Mennonite with the bad hip and a taste for beer, surprise successor to Lance Armstrong, America's freshest jock hero. The next, he's gone from yellow jersey to scarlet letter, helping perpetuate the reputation of cycling as dirtier than Pigpen's fingernails.
But it's hardly the only sport we can't trust.
Off the top of my head, I'd exempt curling from skepticism. That's about it.
We see the headlines that say Landis is suspended by his team, Phonak, after testing for excessive testosterone after Stage 17 of the Tour, the stage where his miraculous bounce-back performance propelled him back into the race. The immediate reaction is: No way. If our boy Floyd is dirty, who isn't?
Second reaction: Well, of course there's a way. This is cycling, and this is modern athletics.
Of course Floyd could be dirty, pending a test of his "B" sample that could either confirm or refute the original test. What do we really know about him, beyond his charming and unique backstory, and the dramatic way in which he won the Tour? Not enough, of course.
The bottom line is that almost every athlete in almost every sport could be dirty. And that raises some grim questions:
Who can we cheer with any kind of certainty? What too-good-to-be-true story is legit? Where does hopeful belief end and rampant cynicism begin?
That line gets muddier every day, with every discouraging story.
The Landis news comes as Barry Bonds' buddy and former personal trainer, Greg Anderson, is busy stonewalling the feds. It comes not long after the HGH bombshell blew up on Jason Grimsley. It comes as Baseball Hall of Fame voters begin considering what to do with Mark "I'm Not Here To Talk About The Past" McGwire.
(Luckily we're between Olympic Games, which have become a veritable bazaar of drug cheats and drug chasers. Most of the time, the experts say, the cheaters stay a step ahead of the chasers.)
Given everything that's in the air -- and in the urine -- can you blame sports fans for feeling jaded?
As a sporting culture, we already know way too much about "B" samples and blood-cell counts, EPO and HGH. Sad to say, though, we probably need to know more. We should probably carry even more knowledge (and suspicion) with us when we cheer exploits that literally are superhuman.
If a guy hits 70 home runs in his late 30s, we should probably stop clapping long enough to wonder why. If a 260-pounder is running a 4.4 40-yard dash, we should probably wonder why. If a guy comes out of relatively nowhere to win the most prestigious event in cycling, a sport rife with doping issues, we should probably wonder why.
Landis did the near-impossible: He made America care about the Tour de France in the post-Lance Era. He did something even the machine-like Lance never did -- crack, collapse, appear completely beaten and then come back. That was the kind of drama sports fans who have never clipped cycling shoes onto pedals could relate to.
Now, Landis might be keeping our attention for all the wrong reasons. Once again: If a story is too good to be true, it probably is.
His potential defrocking furthers a lingering question when it comes to the Tour: Does it really decide the world's best cyclist, or merely who has the world's most crafty chemist?
Remember how this year's Tour de France started -- with several top competitors being forced out of the race after they were implicated in a Spanish doping probe.
A confirming test would undo one of the more enjoyable American stories in recent times: the rise of Landis, a guy who was raised by a conservative Mennonite family in Pennsylvania, hardly the normal breeding ground for an athletic star. Landis eventually left the community to ride mountain bikes in San Diego, then transitioned to road racing.
He rode with Lance Armstrong on the U.S. Postal Service team for a number of years, then left to join Phonak. That team previously had been captained by Tyler Hamilton, who is enduring a two-year ban from the sport for doping (Landis and Hamilton never rode together with Phonak).
So while we await the second test on Landis, we're taking nominations: Are there any clean athletes left? Any athletes who rely on strength, agility, speed or endurance that don't produce at least a flicker of doubt?
If there are, they're invited to step forward. And, just in case, they should bring their clean drug tests with them.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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• Landis won't race in France in '07
• Landis slams WADA's Pound
• Cyclist acquitted due to errors by lab
• French doping lab tightens security
• Online defense argues lab made mistakes
• Landis has hip surgery
• Landis' former team Phonak shuts down
• Armstrong: Landis said too much
• Landis' 'B' sample tests positive
• DeSimone: Panel permits retests
• Kreidler: Excuses at elevated levels
• Keown: Signs were there
• DeSimone: Dopey statements
• Thompson: Landis denies cheating
• Forde: What's left for fans?