An interview with Floyd Landis, January 28, 2009
The countdown to the end of the suspension of Floyd Landis is nearly over. After two years, the American who once stood atop the Tour de France podium returns to a changed sport as a different person. Cyclingnews sat down with him at his team's training camp in southern California to re-introduce Landis back to professional road cycling.
The saga of Floyd Landis will likely never be forgotten by cycling fans. The epic story of stage 17 alone was enough for the history books, even without the soap opera that followed. But it did follow. And the roller coaster ride that ensued overshadowed everything else.
Anything that could have happened in the aftermath, seemed to happen. Two-and-a-half years later, the 33-year-old man at the center of it all is stepping back up to the plate. All he asks is that we focus on him as he is today, not what he was before. But in order to do that, we need to know how he arrived at this place – for his future in the sport teetered between return and retirement.
But there was a time when Landis was ready to hang up his wheels for good. Not only did he lose his appeal, but the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) fought to begin his two-year suspension much later than originally scheduled because he participated in non-sanctioned mountain bike races. He said that if that had happened he would not have returned to professional racing.
"There was a period of time that I wasn't so interested in riding my bike... at all," Landis said frankly. "I guess during that time I didn't look too far ahead but I didn't think it was really something I wanted to do. More or less up to that point I'd accomplished and experienced everything in cycling I wanted, so along with everything else that happened I lost interest."
"I did ride my bike occasionally. For a month or two I'd ride every day and then there were periods I just wouldn't want to get on the bike. It all really depended on how busy I was with the legal things that were going on. I never stopped really appreciating my bicycle, I just didn't have any goals so I just wasn't as determined with my riding."
Ultimately a compromise put the start date of his suspension not when he voluntarily stopped racing after the 2006 Tour, nor in 2008 as USADA had wanted – but in January of 2007, the date when Landis sent his letter stating his intention not to race.
With an end to his ordeal in sight, Landis began to consider his comeback, but where? Certainly with other big name riders returning to the sport, including ones returning from a suspension, Landis knew he could land a contract at most any level. He had been in touch with Michael Ball of Rock Racing who is well known for not having issues with riders' past lives. But it was not to be.
Landis said that he never sought out a return at the level he was when he left the sport. "I didn't make any attempt to even find a ProTour team. In fact I think I prefer to race in the US for now, and if the opportunity arises I guess I'll consider it. But at the moment it's not one of my immediate goals."
In the end, from Landis' comments, everything seems to boil down to who he can trust. On his new team the trust begins at the very top, as Landis' long-time personal physician, Dr. Brent W. Kay, MD, co-founder and executive director of OUCH Sports Medical Center, is the impetus behind the sponsorship. Dr. Kay testified at Landis' USADA arbitration hearing and is the doctor who oversaw his hip resurfacing surgeries.
"The guys on the team are great and the staff... everyone around me are good people. Dr. Kay, who owns OUCH and sponsors the team, is a friend of mine so I'm surrounded by good people... people I trust and know. It'll be a completely different experience to the last six years I spent racing in Europe, but I think it'll be a more rewarding one in some ways."
In a recent interview Landis said he had no more trust, but Landis said this was in reference to the system. "That was directed at the anti-doping agencies for the way they treated me – the way they interpreted their rules that they had written themselves that were clearly meant to be something other than the way they treated them. I hope I never have to have another experience where I rely on them to do anything."
Having a rider with the results and capability of Landis racing on a domestic team with a predominantly domestic calendar is a rather unique occurrence. The most recent and similar comparison would have to be that of Tyler Hamilton, who is the current US professional road champion. While Landis will be a leader of the team, he said he will not be the only one – and he sees his leadership role as much as a teacher as it is a winner.
"I don't think the team is going to be revolving around me," he said, sounding relieved by the fact. "I hope that my presence and the experiences I've had, that I bring to the team, will help the younger guys who have aspirations of doing some of the things that I did in Europe. Otherwise I am just going to be part of a team of guys that goes to races to try to win. While that doesn't always happen we are going to focus on doing our best to represent our sponsor at the races."
Aside from the Tour of California, the OUCH Pro Cycling team's racing calendar will be almost completely domestic, or at least continental. The team is planning on racing the Vuelta Mexico with Landis as the leader. But then it will tackle the likes of Redlands, Cascade Classic and the Tour of Utah on the road racing side, and then the usual menu of short and fast criteriums in between.
The last time Landis raced an American criterium was in 2004 at the USPRO championships in Downers Grove, where he showed up unannounced after a break on his way back to Europe.
"There are many other US races that are good and there are one-day races and criteriums also that'll be good for some of the other guys on the team – and I'll be there to help those guys. I'm not a sprinter so I won't be much use in the sprint but I'll be there to help them. It's been a long time since I've raced domestically, not since... 1999/2000, I can't remember now but I'm looking forward to it!"
One aspect of racing domestically versus over in Europe that Landis is looking forward to is the ease of it all. "The races here are fun. A bit less stressful, but the racing in Europe is not necessarily harder. Obviously the Tour de France is a whole other level. But races here are generally easier in terms of functioning between stages and living a normal life between races. That is something I am looking forward to!"
Otherwise, Landis is not making specific plans or goals for the season, at least in terms of racing. "We're going to go to each race and whether it be me as leader or someone else that takes whatever opportunity that comes up, whether it's a breakaway or somebody is in good shape, we'll work for them. Our objective is to race as a team and try to win it."
"We have young guys on the team that haven't gotten a lot of experience but I think that between me, Rory [Sutherland,] Tim Johnson and Karl Menzies we have a lot of people on the team who can help those guys reach the goals they have. And the other guys on the team, when I say that it doesn't matter to me if I go and race in Europe or not, it's not lost on me that those guys have the same aspirations that I had ten years ago so, if I can help them with that, I think that would be equally rewarding to me."
Welcome back to where you were
Unfortunately, making a return to the sport like this is going to include some extra hassles – like dealing with the press. Since 2006 Landis has given interview after interview about his case and his suspension, and part of his defense strategy revolved around using the media to help him fight the case by swaying public opinion. Even though he is returning to racing, and will largely return to doing interviews about that, he still expects to have to talk about the past.
"It's not so much of a distraction that it causes problems with training, I just have to be careful not to over do it. I don't really like to have to say no to people... I mean there's certain people in the press that I'd get more out of by spending time with them, but that doesn't mean that they'd be any more fair with me. It's something that I thought about when I considered if I should race again. Knowing that I have to deal with the press is just the price I have to pay for that and it doesn't really bother me."
When asked if he thinks he will use this experience to help teach his younger riders how to deal with the media, Landis said no – but more in an air that he hopes they never have to go through what he has.
"There [are] things that I can tell them that might help if they're ever in some sort of crisis or something like that but I don't think their experience in the foreseeable future will be anything quite like mine was. They can go about things in a slightly different way, a more relaxed way, they can be themselves a lot more. At some point I was able to too."
Regardless of anything else, just returning to his chosen profession is a win for Landis. From not knowing a year ago if he would be able or even willing to do it, to racing as a professional again with his past securely behind him, puts a smile on his face. "Just getting back is making be excited. I feel that being focused and training again, that is reward in itself. Our team is going there to race to win, but I am happy to have the chance to be back racing and a part of the excitement – I missed it."