By Mark Zalewski with reporting from Peter Stothard in Temecula, California
Having a rider that once wore the yellow jersey in the Tour de France come onto your team is not an every day occurrence for most domestic squads. For Rory Sutherland, who has won the individual US National Racing Calendar title for the past two years, and the other returning members of the top NRC team, the team dynamics will be shifting. Cyclingnews chose Sutherland as the de facto spokesman for the team on the subject of Landis joining the team – ironically on the day he received his 'media training' at team camp!
"He is not just the average racer but he still is a guy like any of us," Sutherland about Landis. "He wants to race and wants to train hard, but he hangs out with us and we treat him like every other teammate. The Health Net family was a close-knit group, but there aren't that many of us from last year – there is a good amount of change-out and fresh faces. All things considered they way the first four days of the year have gone it has been fantastic and Floyd is fitting in great."
On the fitness of Landis, Sutherland said frankly, "General consensus is that he is really, really good! He's a great addition to have to the team."
Sutherland does recognize that Landis' presence will shift the leadership of the team from the previous years, but says it will be for the better – for the team and himself. "I've been asked this question a lot, and it's one I asked myself. I kinda was the upper part of the team. Does this change what I am doing? Of course it is going to but it is all a good change. I'm not bored with having responsibility at all, but I think this is a good opportunity to ride with and under a guy who essentially won the Tour de France."
"At 26 years old and Floyd being 33, a couple of years with him learning, I can only say it should be a positive experience. I definitely have a lot to learn and if I am looking to step-up in terms of racing, little steps like California and Missouri, I have to keep learning along the way. Watching and playing a part in the way Floyd does it will teach me a lot of the lessons for me to make that next step for myself."
Sutherland and Landis have a unique common bond, as Sutherland had to serve a suspension in 2005 for a non-intentional positive test. "We do have a special connection, we can say that! With my particular history I don't go into it judging people by their history. I go with today and where we go from today. He is definitely a different guy and a lot of fun to be around. He is a teammate now and is part of our family."
As to Landis being the 'F-N-G', Sutherland said it has been an quiet welcome process, but mostly because of the presence of sponsors, VIP and the media. But all bets are off for the rest of the week as he and his usual roommate Tim Johnson prepare a proper welcome. "We've had a lot of sponsors around the last few days, so we've had to be on our best behavior. But the next few days we are just left with 12 riders and the staff, we'll get a chance to know each other... and who knows, TJ and I might have a few things up our sleeves to 'welcome' him back to the sport properly. But know that we are all hard-working, respectable athletes!"