By Gerard Knapp
Floyd Landis has had preliminary discussions with team director Jonathan Vaughters about a possible return to racing in his Professional-Continental squad, Team Slipstream Powered by Chipotle. Vaughters confirmed to Cyclingnews that he had spoken with the current Tour de France 2006 champion about a possible return to racing, but said it was still very early days. "We've not even discussed money or contracts or anything like that," Vaughters said.
"I'd spoken to Floyd and he said, 'it'd be a great team to come back [to racing] with' but if he can't prove his innocence, then it's not really worth discussing any further," Vaughters said.
Landis is still to face hearings at the US Anti-Doping Authority following his alleged positive test for testosterone in a sample provided after his epic win in stage 17 of the 2006 Tour de France. Landis has maintained his innocence throughout and has engaged the services of leading attorney, Howard Jacobs, to prepare his defense.
"I certainly hope he can prove his innocence," Vaughers said. "I still consider him a friend." When asked if he believed Landis was innocent, Vaughters said, "only Floyd knows the answer to that".
Vaughters believes that whatever the outcome of the hearings (still to be announced), it's unlikely that Landis will be free to race in 2007. He expects that even if Landis wins his case, then it's likely to be subject to an appeal, and similarly if Landis loses, it's expected he would appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).
"It's going to be the same thing as what happened with Tyler [Hamilton]," Vaughters said of the protracted legal proceedings surrounding the American cyclist who is making a return to racing this year for Russian-backed Pro-Conti team, Tinkoff Credit Systems. Hamilton similarly protested his innocence and mounted a legal challenge, but the decision was upheld and he spent two years out of pro racing.
Vaughters was keen to stress he did not want his team to be seen as being tolerant towards doping. "Unless there was a full exoneration of Floyd, we wouldn't be interested" in any further discussions, he added.
Vaughters accepted that rumours had spread like wildfire about a possible link between the two. Both rode for the US Postal Service team of Lance Armstrong (though not at the same time) but Vaughters left to join the French squad, Credit Agricole. Since retiring, Vaughters has put his energy into a development squad for American cyclists that was known as TIAA-CREF from 2004 to 2006.
In 2007, it has changed name to Team Slipstream Powered by Chipotle (see teams database) and has also acquired Professional-Continental status, one level below that of being a ProTour team. Vaughters has also secured the support of a wealthy American businessman, Doug Ellis and has plans to take his team to the highest level of the sport.
But throughout his role as team director/owner, Vaughters has been an outspoken critic of the 'win at all costs' culture that can lead to doping.
In a recent interview on Cyclingnews, Vaughters said, "We [me, directors, sponsors, management] have to start treating this as a sport, not just a business. We have to start treating the athletes as humans, not expendable fodder. If you say to an athlete, 'you must win today or else', the clever cyclist will make sure he wins, but the way it's done may not be so healthy for the sport or his body."
Cyclingnews' coverage of the Floyd Landis case
September 28, 2008 - Landis takes case to US federal court
September 10, 2008 - Landis signing with current Health Net-Maxxis team for 2009
July 1, 2008 - CAS delivers final blow to Landis legal challenge
June 30, 2008 - Landis loses final appeal
June 28, 2008 - Landis decision due Monday
March 12, 2008 - Landis' judgment day nears
October 21, 2007 - Landis files appeal with CAS
October 18, 2007 - AFLD takes another look at Landis case
Thursday, October 11 - Landis continues fight, appeals to CAS
Saturday, September 22 - UCI officially names Pereiro 2006 Tour champion, Landis case raises issues
Friday, September 21 - Landis' appeal denied, two year suspension levied