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Q&A: Floyd Landis recounts his experience at Big Sugar, his first gravel race

TJ Eisenhart and Landis drop out to help Ted King get medical care via a stranger's pick-up truck.

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Floyd Landis did his first gravel race last weekend in Bentonville, Arkansas at Big Sugar Gravel. In this interview, Landis talks about how the race went, including taking care of Ted King, who crashed and broke his elbow, and his thoughts on gravel racing in general, now that he has gotten a taste for it.

At Big Sugar, Landis lined up in front and was impressed with how fast the race started. He also noted how technical the course was, and how group dynamics play out differently on gravel than on the road.

Also read: Floyd Landis on not racing, racing, and potentially ruining gravel

Ultimately, Landis did not finish the 100-mile race, but it was for a Good Samaritan reason, as he and TJ Eisenhart switched gears to take care of King.

Now, King is home in Vermont and recovering, and Landis is signed up for BWR Kansas this weekend, where he plans to cross what will be his first gravel finish line.

VeloNews: So what happened with Ted?

Floyd Landis: The truth is I was relieved that the poor guy was there so I could stop.

The race went hard in the beginning. It’s like 7,000 feet of climbing, steep up and down, nonstop. The first 30 miles, it’s not the kind where you can carry a lot of momentum. Drafting on the road is one thing; you expect people to point things out. But in gravel no one does; you just hope for the best. No one wants to take their hands off the bars, which I didn’t think about when I did this. There were things I thought I should I point out, but I didn’t want to take my hands off the bars either.

I was maybe in the third group, when I saw TJ sitting with Ted. I didn’t recognize it was Ted, just saw TJ and he waved me over. I thought, ‘perfect, now I can stop. He’s probably smoking weed or something.’ But Ted was pretty dinged up. He wasn’t knocked out or anything, but he’d landed on his elbow. 

I think falling on those rocks like that is worse than falling on rocks or pavement, you get deeper cuts. On pavement you get scraped up. He had a bunch of road rash, too, but his elbow was the worst of it. 

TJ had taken his jersey off and put it around Ted’s elbow. It was bleeding a lot and it’s like, just cover it up so he doesn’t have to look at it. His back was all scratched up because of the way he landed. I guess TJ had wanted to rub his back to comfort him but he had road rash so he was just rubbing his leg. It was 100 percent genuine; he wanted to do something to help and he didn’t know what to do. 

You could tell that Ted was just down and bummed and didn’t want to talk. I was just trying to make sure he was OK and there was nothing urgent to be done. There was no cell phone signal where we stopped, so TJ sent someone up the road. That guy found some guy who wanted 20 bucks to take us to town because he didn’t have gas money. He finally said he’d come help, and I had to help direct him up the road, he had to drive against the oncoming cyclists. And you know how people are when they’re racing, it’s like they can’t see what’s in front of them. 

The guy gets out of the truck and he was limping. I’m like, ‘what happened?’ And he goes, ‘I got bit by a spider.’

He put the three of us in the back of the truck and drove us a mile to where there was a road and a cell signal. I called my guy back at the expo who had a van, but in the meantime, a car with some volunteers came by and we sent Ted with them. We waited with his bike until the van showed up. It was really early, we were back at the start at 9 or 9:30.  

Also read: Gravel safety 101 — Eight suggestions for race promoters

VN: You joked before the race that if it rained you weren’t showing up. And you got out of it in the end!

FL: I did, but the start was the worst part! They go so hard in the beginning and now I know why. The more people in the group the more dangerous. But yes, at Ted’s expense I was a bit relieved to have a chance to quit. 

As I was going through my analysis of it, it wasn’t a judgment or anything, but it’s like if this is a real thing, which it totally is, there are a few things to make it safer. I think a safer way to do it would be – and it’s not a critique of the course – but if you could make the more technical stuff further down the road in the race. Otherwise, the roads were great, and it didn’t take long til you were really out in the countryside.

At the end of the day, bike racing is dangerous. If you give guys at the Tour de France a straight line someone will crash. 

Everything else about it was good but my legs were the weak link in this one, sadly. 

VN: You were in the front when the race rolled out, like you were literally in front of everyone else. How did that go? 

FL: Yeah, that was a mistake. They just started going really hard, [Neilson] Powless and all these other guys that are in real shape decided they didn’t want a group of guys with them. I stayed with them for a couple climbs until I tried to go a more sensible pace. 

I made it ’til it was kinda selective, but once groups split up like that, it’s probably mostly decided at that point, right? Apart from a mechanical, at some point tactics don’t matter if they go that hard in the beginning. In road, you often have tactics that are critical at the end. I think in these, you make the selection in the beginning and then ride as hard as you can. 

Landis raced on an Allied Able, loaned from the Bentonville-based brand.
(Photo: Betsy Welch)

VN: So you’re going to hang back a bit at BWR this weekend? 

FL: That’s what I say, but I’ll probably just get excited and go way, way too hard. You can’t help it, you’re with them and you just go with these guys. 

Wait, that was good, now that I think about it, I should say my strategy is to sit back so when I get dropped I can say it was intentional. 

VN: Did you get a chance to ride with any women? 

FL: Wow, some of the women were really strong. When I sat up out of the front group there were maybe like 15 people left. I think there was still a woman at that point. And I think the first woman finished 12th overall, that’s really quite extraordinary.

It’s so cool; this never existed in cycling where everyone starts together and you can actually see where people are. I never would have known where a woman was. They have to keep doing the mass starts. It’s what the sport needed. People like it. They can compare themselves directly to whoever they want.

The whole scene is really good. It’s good because it’s all people who are cyclists and they came to be part of the event and so they’re just fired up. It’s good energy and everyone’s happy to be there. It needed a mass start thing that everyone can be part of and feel like they’re part of it. The problem with pro racing is it’s so exclusive. Cycling doesn’t have spectators that aren’t cyclists; everyone wants to do it. 

VN: How was the Allied Able? What bike will you be on this weekend?

FL: Those guys [at Allied] were nice enough to let me use the bike again this weekend. In that way I can feel like a pro: I have a nice bike, and they’ll bring it to the race for me. I’m gonna reverse engineer this so I can be a pro again. 

VN: Does this ignite a little flame that had gone dormant? 

FL: It does. And then I have to come home and sit and think and it’s like, ‘OK, Floyd. I know how it goes: you just ride your bike and nothing gets done.’ I didn’t know if I’d be completely indifferent. When I ride by myself I never ride that hard. Racing is such a different feeling, and I hadn’t felt that in 15 years and immediately I was thinking to myself, ‘this hurts, I better be better prepared next time.’ So I need to suppress that. I just want to enjoy my bike. As much fun as it would be to win a race again…

Yeah, that feeling came back and I didn’t know if it would. I gotta keep it in a box.

Maybe next year I’ll be in better shape. Maybe this will motivate me to keep training all winter. See, I’m even calling it training now.