News Feature, February 22, 2009
By Laura Weislo in Pasadena, California
Floyd Landis has avoided the press since the start of the Tour of California, and indeed since he came back from his two-year suspension at the start of February. He broke his silence on Saturday and answered questions at the post-stage press conference after the Tour of California's seventh stage on Saturday in Pasadena.
Landis refused to answer any questions about his doping suspension or any of the controversy surrounding the intense battle he launched to fight the testosterone positive which cost him his 2006 Tour de France title. He did reflect on what it felt to be back in the game, the quality of his first race back.
"It's certainly touching to have so many people come out and cheer for us." - Landis on his return.
"It's been a very difficult race. Compared to any of the races we'd do in Europe of this length, I can't think of any race that would be harder," said Landis. "I haven't raced in two-and-a-half years, and it is a difficult race to start. I'm a little bit disappointed with how things have gone so far, but we're doing the best we can."
Landis also explained he doesn't have any immediate plans to go back to Europe. Racing close to home in California has been a good experience. "I've missed a lot about racing. It's certainly touching to have so many people come out and cheer for us – not just me but for everyone. And to see that in the United States and have this so close to home, it's very satisfying.
"I was impressed with the dedication of some of the fans on the first few days, it was hard enough to get out and ride our bikes in that weather, and a lot of people came out and cheered for us. It was good for the morale."
Still unsure of what his long-term goals will be for his return to the sport, Landis joked that he's keeping his sights on the short-term. "It's kind of like any stage race – it gets to the point where your goals get very short-sighted. Like after this I'm going to find a place to lie down. Hopefully after the race is over I can re-assess what I want to get out of this."
He has lost time on the overall leader Levi Leipheimer (Astana) on several stages, and sits in 32nd place overall, 10:26 behind. That is only a little over two minutes more than his deficit in the 2006 Tour de France when he staged his race-winning coup on Stage 17 that year.
Cyclingnews asked Landis if he might go on a similarly manic early breakaway on Sunday's final stage, which happens to pass through his home training territory in northern San Diego county.
"Tomorrow's a good stage for that sort of thing," Landis said slyly. "Hopefully you'll get to see one, whether it's me doing it or not somebody should try it. There are some guys who are close on the GC, and if I were in their shoes I would try to get some time back. I think Levi's team is strong but they're going to have a hard time controling the entire race on a stage that hilly. Even after Mount Palomar there are some very difficult sections.
"Whether or not I'll be there it's hard to say. I know the streets pretty well, so we'll see what happens."
The final stage heads up to the highest elevation ever seen in the Tour of California, with Mount Palomar cresting out at 5240 feet (almost 1600m). The peak comes just 40 miles into the stage, and could blow the race apart.
Landis is intimately familiar with the ascent, but said he's never raced up it. "My experience there usually involves having a burrito at the bottom, but I'm not going to be able to do that," he joked. "Once I'm done with my burrito I usually climb for about an hour. I imagine they'll go a little faster than I usually go on my own.
"The climb on Palomar is pretty constant. The first half is 5-6 percent, the second half maybe eight percent at the most. It's as hard a climb as you can find anywhere, and certainly coming at this time of the race will make it interesting."
He will have to hope that the Astana team comes under pressure not just from one rider, but several riders in order for Leipheimer's third consecutive Tour of California victory to come under threat.
"Up until this point Astana has been determined to control the race themselves, and they've done a good job. Tomorrow is a very difficult race, and there are some guys that are very close on GC and I don't know if they'll be willing to take some chances and risk their place – I would."
But Landis, who has trained on these same roads for years and has gone over the stage's climbs dozens of times thinks it is more likely that any threat to Leipheimer will come on Cole Grade Road, the day's final climb – a relatively short but steep hill.
"When everyone's tired and some guys are less motivated than others because they don't have so much to gain, and you come to a climb like that it does a lot of damage to the peloton. I don't know how many guys will be together when they start that climb, but if someone wants to get some time back there, there's some damage to be done.
"At full speed it's probably a 10-12 minute climb, and after that it's a way to the finish. And it's not flat – it's rolling," warned Landis.
"If there's a decisive place in the race where somebody wants to get time and doesn't want to try a 'stage 17' where they want to go out and ride all day, that would be it. We'll just have to wait and see what plays out and how the peloton looks when they start that climb. If it goes the traditional way, then that's the place to try something if you're a GC guy."
The bad weather over the first three days left many of the riders sick, but despite reports that he was suffering from a cold, Landis said that he wasn't doing any worse than any of the other riders. "If you ride around in the rain and snow, sometimes you don't feel well afterwards," he quipped.