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Floyd Landis: Into the unknown

Waving to the crowd from the final Dodge Tour de Georgia podium, a grinning Floyd Landis looked as though he couldn’t be happier. He showed no disappointment in his overall third-place finish, even though he had begun the final climbing stage two spots higher, only to be passed by Discovery’s Tom Danielson and Gerolsteiner’s Levi Leipheimer. Nor were there signs of the strained relationship with his former U.S. Postal Service captain Lance Armstrong, with whom Landis had exchanged curt words just hours earlier regarding the previous day’s finish. There was no sign of fatigue or pressure or

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After three years of riding as Lance Armstrong’s helper, Phonak’s Floyd Landis is ready to challenge for the Tour podium

By Neal Rogers

Photo: Casey Gibson

Waving to the crowd from the final Dodge Tour de Georgia podium, a grinning Floyd Landis looked as though he couldn’t be happier. He showed no disappointment in his overall third-place finish, even though he had begun the final climbing stage two spots higher, only to be passed by Discovery’s Tom Danielson and Gerolsteiner’s Levi Leipheimer. Nor were there signs of the strained relationship with his former U.S. Postal Service captain Lance Armstrong, with whom Landis had exchanged curt words just hours earlier regarding the previous day’s finish. There was no sign of fatigue or pressure or discord — just Floyd being Floyd, his trademark green-and-yellow Phonak team kit accompanied by a pair of gold-framed Elvis sunglasses and chants of “Floyd! Floyd!” rising from the packed finish-line crowd.

If the past year has taught the former pro mountain-bike racer anything, it’s to relax and roll with the punches. While Landis enters the 2005 Tour de France as a legitimate podium contender, it wasn’t what he or his Swiss Phonak team had originally planned. Following a stellar performance at last year’s Tour riding in the service of Armstrong, Landis was offered a contract with a Phonak squad built around his former Postal teammate Tyler Hamilton. But when Hamilton tested positive for homologous blood doping at the 2004 Vuelta a España, followed by teammate Santiago Perez’s suspension for the same offense, Phonak teetered on the brink of exclusion from the UCI’s ProTour. That would have extinguished any chance of Landis competing at the Tour de France, but after an uncertain winter, the team was allowed into the ProTour in late January.

“We all stayed on the team because we have the best sponsor in the sport and because we joined the team for many reasons, none of which were taken away because we didn’t have a ProTour license,” Landis said. “We wanted the guarantee for the Tour, but we all had resolved to make the best of it.”

In the absence of Hamilton, the team turned to Landis as a prospective replacement. It’s a leadership position the affable Landis is adjusting to. “I agreed to work for Tyler when I joined the team,” Landis said. “By default, I found myself as a leader.”

Though Landis didn’t anticipate this leadership role at Phonak, the new responsibilities are hardly unexpected given his high profile at last year’s Tour. In particular, Landis’s stage 17 performance in the Alps caught the attention of ProTour team directors and spectators alike. After Landis whittled the lead group down to Armstrong, CSC’s Ivan Basso and T-Mobile teammates Jan Ullrich and Andreas Klöden on the Col de la Croix-Fry, even Armstrong acknowledged Landis’s supreme pace setting by telling Landis to go for the win. It was the first time in six years of Armstrong’s Tour dominance that a Postal rider other than the Texan was allowed an opportunity for personal glory. Though Landis’s attack on the descent didn’t produce the stage victory, it was still a career-defining day for the Pennsylvania native.

“Certainly last year’s Tour was one of the best races of my life,” Landis said. “It went a long way to help me believe that I can possibly win the Tour.”

THE ULTIMATE GOAL
Landis’s newfound ambition jives well with the hopes and goals of Phonak team owner Andy Rihs, who has marked the Tour as the team’s top priority. “In marketing terms, the Tour has an outstanding position compared to any other race,” Rihs said. “It’s extremely important for every sponsor, especially for an international sponsor, so it must be the goal for the team to race for victory at the Tour. It’s definitely the goal of the Phonak team, to see the yellow jersey once with our team. If it is this year or next year, we can’t answer. It’s not the first time for Floyd to take a top-captain role together with his mates, but we have a high-quality team, not just around one star.”

Though Landis will ride the Tour as one of the team’s protected riders, he was quick to point out that, “We certainly have other people who can be the leaders. We have Santiago Botero, who finished fourth in the Tour a few years ago [and won this year’s Tour de Romandie]. We have Miguel Martin Perdiguero, the Spanish rider, who won the Vuelta a Catalonia last year and won in San Sebastian. We have multiple riders who can be leaders.”

That multi-faceted approach runs counter to the targeted mentality that Landis learned while riding the Tour with U.S. Postal. But Landis believes that in many ways, it’s a tactic that makes better sense. “I don’t know that it would be wise for us to race the Tour the way Lance races the Tour,” Landis said. “Lance has earned a spot where he has eight guys to work 100 percent for him. That’s what he deserves.

“Whether another team should risk everything for one person … at this point, I don’t think there’s any other team that has a person like that, aside from maybe Ullrich. But it doesn’t appear that they race that way. Everybody looks at the Postal/Discovery model and says that this is the only way you [should] race the Tour. But the fact is, it may not be the best for every team. If something goes wrong with the one person you’ve risked everything on, then everything is lost.”

In addition to Botero and Martin Perdiguero, Phonak will likely look to Spaniards Oscar Sevilla, Oscar Pereiro and Santos Gonzales at the Tour. All three were part of the squad that was so infamously marred with punctures and mechanicals at last year’s team time trial stage and still fought to a second-place finish. Thirteen stages later, following Hamilton’s departure, Pereiro and Gonzalez showed their mettle on the tough Col de la Croix-Fry stage, riding with the lead group until the final kilometers.

Judging by their early-season results, Phonak is as strong this year as it was last, even without Hamilton. At the Tour of Catalonia in May, the team won the opening team time trial seven seconds ahead of Discovery and 15 seconds better than T-Mobile. And in Georgia, Landis proved that he’s just as capable of taking significant pulls at the front of a nine-man unit. In the demanding stage 3 time trial, he not only beat world-class specialists Dave Zabriskie, Bobby Julich and Viatcheslav Ekimov, but he also put almost two minutes into Armstrong. In the new head game between Armstrong and his former protégé, it was a psychological victory as much as anything. Still, Landis was quick to downplay the result.

“The Tour de Georgia is a wonderful race, but the Tour de France is another story,” Landis said. “To beat Lance, I’m sure it would mean the same to anybody. He’s the biggest star in cycling, the best cyclist ever. He’s won the Tour six times. If I win the Tour de Georgia time trial, I’ll stay humble. You can expect if Lance is at the Tour, he won’t be there to be humiliated.

“I have the good fortune to be the team leader at the Tour de France, but Lance will be very hard to beat, for me or for anybody else. Still, we have, I believe, the best team for the team time trial, and for the beginning of the race, the first stages. I believe we have a very good opportunity to take the lead in the Tour. After that, we will go from there.”

“NOW IT’S UP TO ME”
Though Landis began his cycling career as a mountain-bike racer, he says he always aspired to ride on the road. After three seasons with the Mercury team, he made the move to U.S. Postal in 2002, earning a spot on the Tour team for three consecutive years. Even a broken hip suffered during the early 2003 season couldn’t keep him away. They were three years spent learning from the best in the business, even if his relationship with Armstrong has since soured somewhat.

Armstrong hasn’t publicly commented on that relationship since Landis’s departure, other than to call Landis “annoying,” but relations actually had begun to sour even as Armstrong was en route to winning his sixth Tour last year. When Landis rode a strong uphill time trial at L’Alpe d’Huez, finishing 21st, team director Johan Bruyneel questioned the support rider’s motivation to ride so strongly against team directives. Landis answered that he had gone easy, but soon after that he signed with Phonak, opting for a support role with another American leader.

Months later, when Armstrong dropped Landis and crossed the finish line at the decisive Brasstown Bald Mountain finish line in Georgia, the Tour champion’s reaction to Danielson’s win and Landis’s loss — pointing down the road to a dejected Landis and then back up at the clock — spoke volumes. Later, Armstrong said, “To see one rider who has left the team on his own will [to] be taken over by somebody who came on the team and is happy and really pleased to be here, for me that’s a special thing.”

Landis had his own perspective on Armstrong’s finish-line celebration. “It looked to me like it was used as a platform for spite,” said Landis, though he remained vaguely diplomatic on his role at U.S. Postal. “I agreed that my job would be to help Lance. There was no reason for me to be unhappy in that role. I agreed to do it, and to do it as best I could. Certainly Lance pays bonuses to the guys that help him, so there’s no reason to be…. I think it’s clear that everybody coming into that team knows exactly what the role is, and rightfully so.”

So when did Landis first begin to believe he could vie for overall victory at the Tour? “I don’t know if there was a point one day where I decided I could win. Even now I’m not certain I can win. It’s still a dream, and I hesitate to predict anything like that. Last year’s Tour was certainly a big step forward, but I’ve seen how difficult it is. I’ve seen a guy do it successfully, but I’ve also seen how much stress it is, and how many things are involved. There’s more to it than just bicycle racing. Whether I can do it or not, we’ll see.”

To that end, Landis has pared down his racing schedule this year. Unlike 2005, when he wore leaders’ jerseys at the Tour of the Algarve in February and at the Vuelta in September, Landis is focusing his racing days on the build-up to July. Following Georgia, he had scheduled to race at Catalonia May 16-22 and the traditional pre-Tour warm-up, the Dauphiné Libéré, June 5-12.

“Last year I tried to stay at the top level from February the whole way until the Vuelta. By the end of the year I think it was a little bit too much,” Landis said. “This year I’ve been fortunate to have the freedom to have an easier schedule. I thought it would be wise to try what Lance does, even if it’s just for once. It’s not necessarily fewer racing days, it’s just concentrated racing days in May and June.”

Landis said that although both Catalonia and the Dauphiné would serve as final Tour team selection races, he wouldn’t personally have the same input on the nine-man squad that Hamilton had. “I believe most of the decision-making will be up to the management and the directors, “Lands said. “Usually by the time June comes around, it’s fairly obvious who belongs there and who doesn’t. There were times on the Postal Service team where there were one or two guys who you could say one belonged and the other didn’t, and in that case I think the wise thing is for the management to make the decision. I don’t want to be the person to do that.”

With a new team mentality, combined with an insider’s view of the workings of Armstrong’s Discovery team, Landis hopes he can take what he has learned and give the Texan a run for his money.

“I’ve done the Tour three times, all three times on the Postal Service with Lance, so I had a pretty good teacher as far as how to prepare for it,” Landis said. “Now it’s up to me. Now it’s up to me to try and come up with a plan and work with the rest of the team on the team time trial and that kind of thing. We’ll all find out together how it works.”