Floyd Landis' hope amid the ruins

IDYLLWILD, Calif. -- All of Floyd Landis' material assets can be seen with a quick glance around his home, a compact, rustic cabin with stucco and pine-board walls on a rutted single-lane road at 6,000 feet elevation in this wooded hamlet in the San Jacinto Mountains.

It has the feel of a weekend fixer-upper. Leftover lumber is scattered underneath a deck Landis built, along with an old-style television heaved over the railing at some point. Inside, basic furniture is arranged on worn brown carpeting. A mechanic's bike stand and exercise equipment crowd the kitchen; jars of nutritional supplements and fish oil sit on the stove and atop the fridge. "Oh, The Places You'll Go," by Dr. Seuss, lies prominently on a bedside table. Wikipedia notes that the book "concerns life and its challenges."

Downstairs, there are a couple of road bikes, neither from his racing career: a Cannondale and a BMC. Landis, soon to leave on a lengthy flight to Australia to speak at an anti-doping conference, has stretched his legs with a ride on a late September morning, helmet-less and dressed in a plain black jersey and fi'zi:k-brand shorts. Only his distinctive jawline would give him away to anyone who watched him in his heyday.

Once a millionaire, Landis -- who exhausted his savings on his legal defense during the two years he fought the doping conviction that cost him the 2006 Tour de France title -- is now broke and divorced, his former house in the San Diego area repossessed and his credit rating blown to bits. His last steady source of income was an endorsement deal with Smith & Nephew, the company that made the titanium device implanted in his crash-damaged hip four years ago, but that ended this year as well.

"At the moment, I'm not doing all that well, but the whole country's unemployed, so I'm not in the minority," Landis said. "I would like to race another year, but I don't think that's a possibility. I'm going to have to figure out what to do. Hopefully, a little more time passes, it'll be easier to sort of fit into society. But it's getting to the point now where I'm going to have to get a job pretty soon, in the next few months."

Landis said he still owes his lawyers $80,000. In his mind, however, his most important debt is to the people who helped him amass $1 million-plus in 2006-07 in what was called the Floyd Fairness Fund. He and his support team toured the country, holding 16 fundraisers where they argued that the evidence against him was compromised. Fans eager to believe that Landis was clean when he won the epic Stage 17 of the 2006 Tour handed him $20 bills. Wealthy supporters wrote five- and six-figure checks. Many donated something in between.

Given his circumstances, it seems unlikely that Landis will have the means to repay anyone in the near future. But he said he intends to, and will set up a claims process within the next month. He thinks some of his backers knew he was lying when he said he had never doped, but the faith many people put in him nags at him daily, he said.

Landis, who turns 35 this month, has raced only a few times as an unaffiliated rider since last spring, when he confessed to doping throughout most of his career and said he took part in an organized doping program on Lance Armstrong's former U.S. Postal Service teams. The last team Landis rode for, Bahati Foundation, severed its ties with him and later folded.

Landis said he can't confirm that he is the unnamed plaintiff in a whistleblower lawsuit filed several months ago against Armstrong and a slew of former investors and executives in Tailwind Sports, the entity that owned the Postal team. (Other sources with direct knowledge of the case, which remains under seal, confirmed Landis' role to ESPN.com and other news outlets.)

The U.S. Department of Justice is weighing whether to get involved on Landis' side in the civil case, known as a "qui tam'' case; the government intervenes on behalf of the plaintiff in approximately a quarter of such cases. If it were to be proven that Postal Service sponsorship dollars were spent for fraudulent purposes including doping, the government could recoup millions of dollars -- and Landis would be in line for a share. But that outcome would be years away, if ever.

He's pessimistic that he'll ever ride professionally again after months of fruitless job inquiries. Landis is sure he's been informally blacklisted, and he's still plenty angry about that, though anger is gradually giving way to resignation about his prospects. The reality is that his accusations against other riders, staff, team owners, and national and international federation officials have triggered a government investigation and rendered him all but toxic in his sport.

"What I want to make clear is that I can't at the moment set a timeframe for when I can start paying people back, but I'll be glad to take the claims so that I have them," Landis said. "I don't want to wait until I can pay it. I'd like to have it set up, because it's going to take time to sift through the whole thing anyway."

Fund had donors of all sizes

The Floyd Fairness Fund was set up as a trust account for Landis' benefit at the now-defunct Washington Mutual Bank, which was absorbed by JP Morgan Chase during the global financial crisis in late 2008. Landis' name was on the account, but he did not have the authority to make withdrawals or sign checks, according to the trust agreement, which was reviewed by ESPN.com. The only person authorized to do that was Michael Henson, the former executive director of the fund who also served as Landis' spokesman and media liaison while he was fighting his case.

Henson, who works for a public relations firm in New York and is no longer affiliated with Landis, declined to comment on any aspect of Landis' current situation. But he did corroborate Landis' assertions that roughly $1 million was collected in the year that the fund was active, that it was vetted by an accounting firm, and that all of the money went to legal fees for Landis' first round of arbitration. The account was closed in late 2007, Henson said. Landis subsequently lost an appeal of his conviction before the Court of Arbitration for Sport, an international arbitration body originally created by the International Olympic Committee.

The Floyd Fairness Fund was not set up as a non-profit organization, and thus donations to it were not tax-deductible -- which is part of the reason that many donors will be hard to trace, as they were not given receipts. Landis said he declared the income on his taxes. "I know this might sound ridiculous coming from someone who cheated by doping, but I would never cheat the IRS," he said last spring.

Landis said his first priority is to repay smaller donors -- a group whom both he and Henson estimated contributed roughly $300,000 to the fund. To do this, Landis plans to create a form and post it on his currently inactive personal web site, floydlandis.com, asking individual donors to provide documentation. That could take the form of a canceled check or an autographed picture or other item that was received in exchange for a donation -- or even a simple written description of the fundraiser the person attended. Other donations may be traceable through Paypal records.

"Probably some people are going to get $100 here and there that they didn't give, but whatever, we can figure that out," Landis said. "I know what the total is. I'm not that concerned about that."

Landis, who has cooperated with federal investigators and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, has not been charged with fraud by any government entity and he said no individuals have sued him. But his confession in May sparked visible wrath among fans at the Tour of California. ESPN.com's Jim Caple, covering the race, encountered a group of spectators that had chalked "$50 Fraud Landis" on the course to advertise their contribution and their sense of betrayal. But attitudes are sure to run the gamut. Two bloggers who wrote extensively about Landis' case and donated to his defense said they probably would not make a claim.

"If he pays people back, it's a nice gesture, it shows humility," said Daniel Rosen, a 51-year-old consultant based in Milwaukee and author of a book about the history of doping. He blogged regularly about the Landis case at rant-your-head-off.com.

Rosen said he contributed something close to $1,000 to the Fairness Fund in several installments and still considers that donation worthwhile because he felt Landis helped expose flaws in the anti-doping adjudication system. "By no means does he need to feel obligated to pay me back," he said. "I knew what I was getting into, and I knew there was a possibility that this was an illusion."

Californian David Brower, 53, maintained a web site called Trust but Verify that provided a compendium of links and on-line discussions about the Landis case, pro and con. He said he gave several thousand dollars to the Fairness Fund.

"I won't be lining up for a refund," Brower said.

"A significant number of people have said [donating to the fund] is what they're most annoyed with. If he can make them less unhappy, I don't see any particular downside."

Landis' biggest financial backer by far has been Dr. Brent Kay, his good friend, personal physician and sponsor of his OUCH team last year, whom Landis estimated has spent more than $1 million on his legal and living expenses. Kay continues to help Landis, allowing him to stay periodically in a second home the doctor owns in the San Diego area.

Other major donors requested anonymity at the time they gave to the Floyd Fairness Fund because of their ties to the U.S. cycling industry. Landis and Henson said they would continue to honor that request -- although they did confirm separately that Armstrong was not a donor. USADA lawyers prosecuting Landis at one point requested a list of donors, but the information was never turned over.

Landis said he was honest with some large donors, telling them he had doped during his career but had not done what he was accused of during the 2006 Tour de France -- i.e., use synthetic testosterone. Others, he said, probably suspected he was being less than honest, and some may have had a vested interest in seeing him continue to fight rather than confessing and possibly implicating other American athletes, including Armstrong. Still others told him they contributed to try to ensure he got a fair hearing.

Two men who have been active in the business and politics of professional cycling in the United States confirmed that they were among Landis' benefactors but would not go on the record because of their continuing ties to the sport. "He deserved a fair trial," one said. "It was not a suggestion that I believed in his innocence or guilt, but having no chance is inappropriate." Another echoed that sentiment and added, "He probably deserved to lose, and it would have been better if he'd confessed, but I don't harbor any resentment about having given him money."

Landis said that if he ever gets to the point that he can contemplate refunding the $700,000 he estimates was contributed by wealthy donors, he would prefer to have them select charities where he could direct the money.

Prof. Thomas I. White, director of the Center for Ethics and Business at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, said Landis' voluntary pledge to repay donors, as opposed to being forced by legal action, is highly unusual if not unprecedented and would be admirable if Landis follows through. In the corporate world, he said, it has become more common for executives to apologize for wrongdoing but it's still rare for them to go beyond what is required in the way of restitution.

"It's not so much the money as the relationship of trust that fans thought they had with had with Floyd," White said. "That relationship has been damaged. Can it be repaired? As long as they don't think it's an empty gesture. People tend to respond well when someone is saying, 'I know I did wrong, I can't make this right, but I can do this.' "

'It does not erase the lie'

There's very little in Landis' cabin to indicate that he was once at the top of his sport, unless you know what you're looking for. A stylized glass trophy -- a delicate statuette of a bike topped by a peach -- glints in one window. He got it for his overall win of the 2006 Tour de Georgia, the season he won four major races and then saw his career implode. The fragments of his Tour de France trophy, a purple and gold porcelain bowl, are stored in his ex-wife's garage; he said he hurled the prize to the ground in a fury after losing his case against USADA.

Landis sold his racing bikes, his souvenir jerseys and other paraphernalia long ago to help fund his defense. But he did hold onto a few items that might raise eyebrows at an auction. "I have three yellow jerseys signed from Lance to me, from the three Tours I rode with him," Landis said. "They say 'Thank you.' " He chuckled grimly. "I don't think he'd write 'Thank you' now." They are being saved for his teenage stepdaughter, he said.

"I never hung up pictures and trophies and stuff like that,'' he said. "I never liked it. That wasn't my identity. I liked to race my bike."

Birdsong and wind in the evergreen branches form the soundtrack in Idyllwild. Landis is warmly greeted by the proprietor and chef of a local bistro when he shows up for lunch or a coffee, but the locals also understand his need for privacy and leave him be. This is a good place to flee, to stew and to ponder, and Landis has done a lot of that in the past few months, his moods oscillating as his initial revelations spin into events now beyond his control. A couple of weeks ago, he summarized his thoughts about repaying Fairness Fund donors in a letter that concluded:

"I am acutely aware that accepting money on a false premise and then later returning it does not erase the lie, and I'll live with the fact that I lied to trusting people, but I want to live an honorable life and I hope that people will see this as a starting point toward that goal."

That ethereal mission isn't anything like the goals he used to set for himself as an athlete, with a sense of purpose he misses and will have to struggle to replace. In the meantime, Landis said he has no choice but to try, in a very different way than before, to put his money where his mouth is.

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.