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Q&A: Floyd Landis on not racing, racing, and potentially ruining gravel

The 46-year-old lined up at Big Sugar Gravel over the weekend, after a long hiatus from bike racing.

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When I heard that Floyd Landis was going to Costa Rica to race in the four-day stage race known as La Ruta, I texted him asking if we could chat.

“Regrettably, yes, I seem to have signed up for that,” he wrote back.

Fifteen years after a doping positive disqualified his Tour de France overall victory and changed his life, Landis was going back to a race. While La Ruta would have been his first time at the start of a marquee event in a long while, more importantly, it marked a return to fitness, something Landis wasn’t sure he would regain after a decade off the bike.

During our chat, Landis told me he was gravel-curious but didn’t have anything on the calendar yet. When La Ruta was postponed due to the Covid pandemic, he decided to go to Bentonville, Arkansas to race last Saturday’s Big Sugar Gravel.

Below is the first half of our two-part interview.

VeloNews: How long did you train for La Ruta?

Floyd Landis: Three to four months. That should be long enough, right? I actually don’t know anything about bike racing, this is entirely new to me. It’s like I deleted it all.

But, I can get in shape pretty quickly. Once you ride that much for that long.. Also, I’m 46 years old so I’m not gonna go out and try and win some death march race.

VN: What is training like for you?

FL: I try and get in my head like I did when I first started riding. I turn my phone off, have some music in my head and try and ride my bike. It’s kinda like a drug; if you get in a zone when you’re just pedaling and it’s you and your thoughts, there’s something really good about it.

When I was training for racing it was really just riding hard. It was mind-altering in a nice way. The whole idea of writing out a training program and saying, ‘I’m gonna go do this’ —  I couldn’t do that at this point. I think riding really hard is probably just as effective a training plan as trying to map something specific out. I never liked that to begin with. If there was a hill, I’d just ride hard to the top of it and that was the training.

Landis raced the Woodsplitter MTB race in Vermont in September as prep for La Ruta. (Photo: Peak Races)

VN: Who turned you on to La Ruta?

FL: I had met Travis [Ketcham, who owns Spartan Race, parent company of La Ruta] three or four years ago and he tried to talk me into doing race. Initially I agreed, and then I looked at it.

Last summer because of Covid, I started riding more regularly than I was. It felt good again for the first time in 15 years. It had always had a bad association with it. Covid, it had this mind-altering effect on time and everything else, and it helped me; I could go ride my bike again. I found the joy. I reached out to him and said, ‘I think I can do this now.’

Costa Rica looks like a pretty place, although there are probably easier ways to see it.

VN: Wait, 15 years is a long time to not ride your bike.

FL: I guess, for a few years afterward I still rode more regularly, maybe ’til 2009 or ’10, but then there was a five-year period when I didn’t ride more than 2,ooo to 3,000 miles total. Very, very little.

VN: And then you gained weight and got out of shape? 

FL: It’s a weird thing. I never understood this when I’d talk to people when I was racing and in shape. They’d ask about racing and getting in shape, and I didn’t know how to relate to them. I was a kid. I always just did it. I never wasn’t in shape. It was a good lesson to take five years off to realize it’s not that easy to get motivated and put on your kit when you don’t like the way you look. It’s hard.

It took me a while to focus and commit. I was thinking, ‘if I don’t do this soon I’ll probably never get in shape again.’ I had to learn what it meant to get in shape.

It’s one thing when you’re tired because you’ve been riding a lot. That’s an entirely different type of motivation than ‘I’ve been on the couch eating Five Guys and watching Breaking Bad for five years and the only thing that fits were my sweatpants.’ That was when I decided I needed to get in shape.

If I bought new pants, a larger size, then I was accepting that I was gonna be fat. I finally decided I have to get in shape. Then COVID came along and it was a reset in my brain.

I’ll never be in shape like I was before but it feels good. You have to get to a certain level of fitness before it feels good. There are months of time where you don’t get a good feeling out of it. You have to force yourself.

VN: Have you lost weight?

FL: At one point I got up to 215 pounds, now I’m down to 160. That’s a lot of weight.

I stopped drinking beer. I think that was really not helping. For a while there it was it’s own kind of medicine and helped me get through some BS in life, but I needed to stop doing that. There’s something really similar about the feeling you get from a couple beers and the feeling you get from a hard bike ride, at least in my brain.

I stopped drinking at the beginning of COVID. It was like, ‘wow, this is a good time to change everything,’ because everything changed. I do miss it. Of all the things you can do to make a social engagement more entertaining, alcohol is one of the best things for that. But you can overdo it, which is generally what I do with things.

VN: Do you have anxieties about showing up at an event? 

FL: I did for a long time just because the story was just ridiculous and everyone also felt awkward when I’d talk to people. No one knew how to even address it or if they should. And if they couldn’t talk about that with me, could they even talk about cycling?

But it’s gotten better over time. People were always reasonably nice about it. I wasn’t afraid of the conversations, it was more an awkward feeling of ‘how do you even talk about this?’ But that’s finally gone. Everyone’s heard the story enough times that they’ve formed an opinion or they don’t care or whatever.

That reason to not go to bike races has gone away.

VN: And, do you currently follow the sport? If so, which aspects?

FL: The last few years I’ve watched the Tour de France because I no longer have negative associations so it’s enjoyable to watch. I’ll look at cycling websites every few weeks. It was my life for a while, so it’s all I did but now I enjoy laughing at the absurdity of it, like the Tommy D thing.

Also read: VeloNews Podcast — Gravel beef!

It has a value for me that’s a little different than for people who have never been in that world. I wish it didn’t, though. But if you want to stay in the sport, it’s a great sport. More people would be interested in paying attention to it if didn’t have the drama. Can you imagine watching the Tom D thing if you didn’t know anything about it?

Cycling sabotages itself. It does stupid things. You can’t just compare it to any other sport. Like the NFL and baseball. They all have effectively tax-subsidized business models. The one thing they don’t do is ostracize people very often. It does happen, but the guys at the top of the sport end up being announcers, doing other things in the sport, they keep it close. They don’t allow everyone to turn on each other and make it a shitshow that everyone wants to watch.

It’s not like I’m innocent, I was part of the whole thing. But this particular sport comes with some unexplainable drama for lack of a better word. At the end of the day, you’re riding bikes. You should sit and have a laugh about it. It’s a never-ending race.

VN: Do you follow mountain bike racing? 

FL: About the same as the road. I’ll observe what’s going on in cycling in general. Mountain biking has turned into a bunch of different sports. When I was riding in the early ’90s, you rode enduro and downhill, you had one bike. Now there’s a bunch of different categories that are just different sports. Mountain biking, at least, has an appeal to teenagers. Maybe there will be a generation of kids from the enduro scene that get into road racing at some point, who knows.

VN: And, you haven’t done any gravel races yet? 

FL: I’ve been to quite a few as a sponsor and will ride my gravel bike around but have never started an event. They look like a lot of fun. It’s like it’s made for middle-aged people who have time to train and aren’t gonna set any world records. And those bikes are great, they’re so much more comfortable than a road bike. I think next year I’ll do some. I don’t think I’ll sign up for any 200-mile death rides. It’s a good format. It’s what cycling was missing.

VN: Do you have an opinion on the rules/no rules drama of gravel? 

FL: If you want rules, you’re gonna ruin it by virtue of making the rules. I honestly didn’t know it was that generally accepted that those [‘spirit of gravel’ rules] were the rules. I never would have known that you were supposed to stop in the feed zone. I mean, I’m happy to stop in the feed zone, but I might have ruined gravel without even trying.