Floyd Landis is coming back to cycling, and says his sport will be better for it.
Landis’ feel-good story came to halt when he was stripped of his 2006 Tour de France victory following a doping scandal and protracted fight in courts around the world. He said Thursday he feels “like a kid again” knowing that his two-year ban from cycling will end next week.
“In my mind, it’s already behind me,” Landis said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I’m not dwelling on that at all.”
Landis was barred for using synthetic testosterone in the latter stages of cycling’s showcase race three years ago. He contends the testing system is flawed, but he has no means left to fight other than to resume racing.
He will ride for the OUCH cycling team and debut at the Tour of California next month, starting what he plans to be at least two years with OUCH, which opens its training camp Friday.
“This isn’t some kind of statement to shut down the critics or any kind of changing-the-world project of mine,” Landis said. “This is me doing what I’ve trained myself to do for the last 15 years, and I hope that the people that follow bike racing get a better show than what they’ve had the last couple years.”
His return comes on the heels of seven-time Tour champion Lance Armstrong resuming his own racing career. Armstrong is currently in Australia at the Tour Down Under, his first competitive race in three years.
Armstrong’s plan is to ride in France this year. Landis isn’t sure if he’ll ever return to the sport’s premier event.
“I don’t have any goals to, but I wouldn’t say that I don’t ever want to,” Landis said. “I would prefer to see how racing in the United States goes and if I really do enjoy it as much as I expect to, I’ll set new goals.”
For now, the first goal is the Tour of California.
Landis says he feels as good as ever, in large part because his left hip is now pain-free. He underwent hip resurfacing surgery two years ago, relieving the bone-on-bone pain that plagued him for years, even during that 2006 Tour.
OUCH is sponsored by Dr. Brent Kay, a devout cycling enthusiast from California who has worked on Landis’ hip for many years and is a close friend of the rider.
He said when the opportunity came to sign Landis, he didn’t hesitate for one second.
“It’s overwhelmingly clear from the evidence that he’s innocent,” Kay said.
It wasn’t so clear to experts analyzing Landis’ case.
Following what a panel of arbitrators decided months earlier, the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled last summer that Landis was evaluated using “less than ideal laboratory practices,” but still concluded that he doped before a stunning victory in Stage 17 of the 2006 Tour.
He was 8 minutes behind Spain’s Oscar Pereiro to start that day.
After that stage, Pereiro’s lead was a mere 30 seconds, and Landis eventually prevailed.
“The best performance in the modern history of the Tour,” was how former Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc described Landis’ effort at the time.
It led to the Tour’s biggest scandal.
Landis’ samples taken after that stage revealed a testosterone/epitestosterone ratio of 11:1—nearly three times the 4:1 limit. Eventually, he became the first Tour champion to be stripped of his title.
And that means the reaction at the Tour of California and other races might not be necessarily warm for Landis.
“I know who I am. I know how I got to be where I am in life,” said Landis, the son of Mennonites in a Pennsylvania community where bicycles were the primary mode of transportation.
“It’s easy for someone to sit and write on a blog everything that’s wrong with the world, but it really doesn’t have any effect on me. I don’t go around judging people. They can judge if they like.”
His new teammates say they’re welcoming the opportunity.
“It’s not every year you are riding with Floyd,” OUCH teammate Rory Sutherland wrote this month in a Web diary posted at cyclingnews.com. “I’m under no illusions that it won’t be a hard year. As a team we will be under the microscope, and have greater expectations than we have had before.”
During his two-year exile, there were a lot of days where Landis thought he was finished.
He still doesn’t trust a drug-testing system that he insists is rigged against athletes, and he can see the irony of his return exposing him to that system. He spent most of his money—he doesn’t know the exact amount, but some estimates are higher than $2 million—railing against the drug-testing setup, knowing the fight was further damaging his reputation.
“There were times when I didn’t have any desire, not because I was interested in avoiding the spotlight or being questioned. Whether I ride my bike or not, that’s not going to go away,” Landis said.
“There were times I didn’t want to race because I lost the fun that I remembered bicycle racing to be. But I’ve got a goal now, a race to focus on, and a good team around me. So those feelings are gone.”
Those who know him best, like Kay, say the doubters are only fueling Landis’ comeback.
“He’s training top-level again and his history always has been that he’s trained harder than everyone else and that’s why he won,” Kay said. “He’s always been stronger and tougher than everyone else. And he’s back at those levels. That’s the side that never gets out there, that people don’t see or understand.”