Editor’s note: The following article appeared in the August, 2009, issue of VeloNews magazine.
Five months into the season, Floyd Landis has made little impact on domestic racing
By NEAL ROGERS
For a former Tour de France champion — even a dethroned one — Floyd Landis has had a disappointing return to the sport.
At the end of June, Landis had not yet won a race, and had earned only 22 points on USA Cycling’s National Racing Calendar, ranking 114th out of 193 riders. By contrast, OUCH-Maxxis teammate Rory Sutherland had earned 785 points and ranked second.
Those results starkly contrast those from three years ago. Following Lance Armstrong’s retirement, American cycling fans looked to hitch a ride on a new star, and they found one in Landis. The Phonak rider tore his way through 2006, winning the inaugural Amgen Tour of California, then Paris-Nice, and ultimately the Tour de France. His dramatic collapse on stage 16 and subsequent comeback the following day became the stuff of legend — until anti-doping tests revealed a foreign source of testosterone and the Mennonite-turned mountain biker-turned U.S. Postal team rider became the first Tour winner to be stripped of his title.
Landis claimed innocence all along, contesting the lab results in hearings with both USADA and the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Despite losing both cases, Landis swore he’d been wronged and promised to return to racing, with an eye on returning to the European pro peloton, and perhaps even the Tour.
Longtime Landis supporter Dr. Brent Kay, who runs the OUCH medical center near Landis’ home in Temecula, California, backed Landis’ comeback and took on title sponsorship for the former Health Net-Maxxis team. Whispers coming from California late in 2008 reported that Landis was training hard and blowing the legs off his future teammates; his domination of the domestic peloton seemed assured.
However, that hasn’t been the case.
Excuses for Landis’ lack of results are plentiful, although they aren’t coming from him. (Landis turned down the opportunity to comment for this story.)
He had unfortunate punctures on the opening stages at both the Amgen Tour of California and the Redlands Classic. He went on to finish California 23rd overall, even mounting an unsuccessful attack on the early slopes of his local climb, Mount Palomar; he abandoned Redlands on stage 1 while Sutherland sat seventh overall.
However bad luck is only part of the story. Landis has also struggled on the bike compared to his form in 2006. For instance, at the SRAM Tour of the Gila in April, he attacked the peloton on the final stage, but only got a few seconds ahead, and then dangled there. Armstrong, Landis’ former teammate at U.S. Postal Service, rode at the front of the field and was overheard saying, “that’s painful to watch. That’s gotta be embarrassing.”
At the Vuelta Mexico Telemex in March, where OUCH-Maxxis won two stages, Landis spent stage 7 in a daylong six-man breakaway alongside Tyler Hamilton and Shawn Milne but finished last out of the breakaway group and finished the race 40th overall.
Instead of dominating, Landis has ridden in a support role, such as at the Nature Valley Grand Prix in June, where he spent the final stage off the front, setting up Sutherland to take the overall from Bissell’s Tom Zirbel on the final lap of the demanding Stillwater Criterium.
“[Landis] is doing everything he can,” said Fly V rider Phil Zajicek, who rode with Landis at Mercury from 2000 through 2002. “He’s not racing to win, he’s racing to help the team in whatever way he can.”
Another reason for Landis’ undistinguished return to his former self is his time away from racing. He was away from professional racing from August 2006 through February 2009 — 30 months.
“I think people need to realize how hard it is to comeback from that kind of time away from the sport,” Zajicek said. “I think it’s a bigger factor than people anticipated.”
However as Armstrong’s return to the sport has shown, lackluster results cannot be pinned solely on time away from racing. Armstrong was away from racing for an even longer absence, and is four years older than Landis, who is 33. Yet the Texan returned to the highest echelon of the pro peloton. However that comparison, Zajicek said, is not fair.
“Lance won the Tour seven times, Floyd won it once,” he said. “They weren’t equals before, so it’s difficult to compare the two.”
Sutherland admitted there had been some “teething problems” with Landis and his new team, but said the returning rider would have encountered those problems on any new team.
“Floyd’s had some time off, and there is the media pressure of him returning in the public eye,” Sutherland said. “There’s the pressure of leaving at the top, being away and then coming back. The Tour of California — the biggest race in America, and with Lance there — was not a perfect roll back into the sport. I think everyone knew it was going to be difficult.”
One thing Landis doesn’t blame anything on is his hip surgery. He had his hip resurfaced in September 2006, and told VeloNews in December 2008 that it was “like new — like nothing ever happened.”
What, then is the reason for such a disappointing return of a man who stood atop the Tour podium in Paris?
Some speculate that the toll of the legal battles has drained Landis both physically and emotionally, and that his motivation has been marginal at best. The financial cost of his positive drug test, in terms of lost salary and endorsements, combined with his legal fees, is incalculable; the emotional damage has also been immeasurable. Shortly after the 2006 Tour win turned to a drug scandal Landis lost his close friend-turned-father-in-law, David Witt, to suicide, and in 2008 he and his wife, Amber, divorced after seven years of marriage.
Landis, who like Tyler Hamilton enjoyed a groundswell of supporters following his drug suspension, lost favor with the American cycling community during his 2007 USADA hearing when Greg LeMond revealed that Landis’ business manager, Will Geoghegan, had threatened to reveal LeMond’s private horror of child molestation — something LeMond said he’d revealed to Landis in confidence, to illustrate the weight of carrying a dark secret.
If his integrity was brought into question with the LeMond extortion scenario, it was only worsened when French laboratory LNDD reported in May that another Landis’ supporter, San Diego-based physician Arnie Baker, had commissioned a third party to hack into the lab’s computer system to obtain documents indicating that the French lab had
corrected mistakes in other doping cases.
Inside the domestic race circuit, where teams usually stay in the same race hotels and team managers often convene for post-race drinks, it’s a poorly kept secret that Landis’ beer drinking — a hobby he’s never hidden from the public spotlight — has taken on a new dimension, reportedly forcing OUCH-Maxxis team management to institute a “no drinking during races” rule some are referring to as the “Floyd rule.” In any event, Landis is clearly carrying more weight on his frame than he did in 2006.
OUCH team spokesmen didn’t respond to calls for comment.
“Floyd is a very interesting person,” Sutherland said. “He’s a complex guy. We’ve been working through issues, but we also have to appreciate the other stuff he brings. We’re definitely seeing him come back, but it’s a slow road back. He’s a different guy to work with, and in any team it’s going to change the dynamic, and that takes a while, everybody getting used to each other. But we enjoy having him around. He’s a fun part of the team.”
Both Sutherland and OUCH-Maxxis teammate Tim Johnson said Landis’ lack of results could be traced to the domestic circuit’s shortage of truly difficult races.
“In the U.S., the races we do aren’t hard enough to bring everything down to straight fitness,” Johnson said. “They suit a much more well-rounded guy. Floyd has had good days and good races. He’s shown he can climb and ride hard, but he’s not all that fast. Looking back earlier in his career he wasn’t a fast guy. He can battle at the front, but not really win with other people around. It has to be a hard day and we don’t have a lot of those races in the States. It’s always going to the line with big groups, over and over.”
Others have suggested that the easiest answer is most often the best explanation, and those who can’t understand Landis’ inability to return to his winning ways — following a two-year drug suspension from winning the Tour de France — are either missing the picture or avoiding the truth altogether.
One domestic team leader, who preferred to remain anonymous, said the writing is clearly on the wall: “Floyd has a lot of fans and people who still believe in him. If they can’t see what is really going on right now, that’s just sad.”
Bissell’s Ben Jacques-Maynes added, “I don’t know if Floyd did what he was supposed to have done, but he’s certainly not the same rider he was. I don’t know how much he’s enjoying bike racing these days.”
Back in December 2008, Landis told VeloNews he’d run out of ideas on how to convince fans that his former results were genuine, saying, “I don’t know how they would convince themselves it’s real. But the fact is, there’s going to be good bike racing. I’m all for athletes’ rights, and I’m all for fair and clean racing at the same time. Certainly all those fans that supported me, and whatever they thought of the outcome of the last two years, I appreciate their support. I hope they get just as much entertainment in the future as they have in the past, and we should all move on from here.”
Whatever the case, the consensus is that Landis will likely shine in harder domestic stage races such as the Cascade Classic, the Tour of Utah and the Tour of Missouri.
“Those races are more suited to him,” Johnson said. “I think then he’ll be able to show what he can do. I never thought Floyd would be one for the Nature Valley Grand Prix.”
Zajicek agreed, saying, “I anticipate at some point in the year Floyd is going to be a factor. I think he was overzealous with his training over the winter. Back in December, at the early team training camps, I heard he was the strongest guy on the team. I think he was way too overconfident that he could sustain that kind of fitness, and he paid the price. I think he’ll have a better second half of the year.”
One thing seems certain — Landis brought the sponsorship to his OUCH-Maxxis team, and its sponsorship hinges on him. Some within the domestic peloton suggest the team is on the brink of folding, should Landis decide to throw in the towel. Dr. Kay said otherwise.
“The sponsorship has been great and Floyd’s success after his hip replacement has exceeded all of our expectations,” Kay said. “He trained and rode so hard for Tour of California and Tour of Mexico that he ended up with some tendonitis in his knee but no problems with the hip, unbelievable. He’s 100 percent now and ready for the second half of the season, particularly Cascade, the Tour of Utah, the pro championships and the Tour of Missouri. Although sponsor dollars are hard to come by right now, we hope to continue for years to come.”
Time will tell how long Landis continues.