By Mark Zalewski with reporting from Peter Stothard in Temecula, California
The first race back for Landis, and the first race for the new team OUCH, will be the Tour of California. Landis won the first edition of this race in 2006, so it is a little serendipitous that it hosts his comeback. The race also finishes close to his home near San Diego this year, potentially giving him a slight home-field advantage.
Starting on February 14th in Sacramento, the Tour of California will be the first race of the season for many teams, and Landis says the team will be prepared. "I don't know that it's the biggest goal for the season – it's certainly the biggest race we're going to do – so because of the size of it and the ProTour teams being there will make it the hardest so we certainly have to be ready for it."
The last time he raced (and won) this race, Landis had a ProTour team backing him. Even though the he has a good portion of the Health Net program which dominated the NRC in recent years at his side, there is still a difference in power levels with the new team, especially when trying to defend a jersey or control a race. Landis recognizes this, but still feels confident about this year's race.
Recalling his victory in 2006, Landis said the race could quite a bit different this year. "At that point it was the first Tour of California and it was decided in the time trial, so there were only a few days to control it. It may be the same way again, but there looks to be some good hard stages that may affect the general classification. It should be a little more of a dynamic race than just a time trial, but it could always come down to that again."
"And there are going to be a lot of big teams with guys who will want to do well in the race," he continued. "I don't think anyone expects us to take control of the race and keep it together. We will have to adjust our tactics to what the other teams do, like Astana, Garmin and Columbia. But it is generally easier to control with more guys trying to win."
"I'm excited it is coming down here and finishing in Escondidio. Mt. Palomar is a beautiful climb and hopefully we will get good weather. It will be a good, hard stage. It's a pretty straightforward climb, and I am certain the guys who are trying to win will have seen it, but it will feel like home."
But as for returning to the professional peloton after more than two years, Landis is not quite sure what to expect. "It's hard to say, I've had some contact with people along the way who remained friends everyone else...I've been disconnected from the sport, it's not as if I'm the sole person in this situation that's returning to the sport now or has in the past so I'm not some kind of anomaly so I don't think it'll be a huge hurdle I'll have to jump to get acceptance back in the peloton."