Landis, out of shape, returns to competition
Vail, CO Colorado
VAIL ” His jersey was orange, not yellow. His tires were fat instead of skinny, and he rode on a muddy dirt track instead of the purebred European asphalt that made him a global name.
But the sweat that poured off Floyd Landis’ forehead during Saturday’s Teva Games pro mountain bike race was the same brand of sweat that poured off his head during last year’s Tour de France.
And that was all he seemed to care about afterward.
Asked how much his appearance had to do with simply competing again, the 2006 Tour champ said, “All of it.”
“I haven’t been able to do anything since the Tour last year, so I figured this would be a good place to start,” he said to a group of about five reporters. “It’s a good atmosphere. I’d rather not race at altitude because now my chest hurts, but it’s part of the deal. I had a good time.”
A difficult ride
That said, Landis’ return to bike racing was no miraculous event. He barely cracked the top 50 on Saturday, finishing 49th while raising funds for the cancer charity Athletes for a Cure. His finishing time on the 21-mile course put him about 25 minutes back of Avon local Jay Henry, who won his first Teva title on the technical, singletrack-heavy Vail Mountain course.
Landis, 31, was passed on the second lap by the women’s winner, 38-year-old Durango resident Shonny Vanlandingham, who started more than a minute after the men. The rest of the race told a similar story: after a brief stint clinging to the front of the pack, Landis dropped sharply. He was in fifth place 300 yards into the race, but by the end of that lap, the first of three, he stood in 41st place.
He said he wasn’t expecting much going into the day, with good reason. He did not train at all for this event, and the last time he’d been on his mountain bike was “three or four” rides in October, he said ” a month after he had his hip replaced.
“I had a few other things going on,” he joked in the brief but candid postrace interview, explaining his lack of training time.
While his competition rode their trusty, fluid machines, Landis saddled a heavy bike he’d never ridden before, one with wide tires more suited to downhill racing or freeriding.
Two hours before the race began, he showed up at the Trek pro team’s trailer just down the hill from the start and asked to borrow a wrench to adjust his pedals, as well as a water bottle and water bottle cage, because he had neither.
According to Trek team manager Zack Vestal, who obliged the Tour champ’s requests, Landis was already wheezing when he got to the trailer, at the top of a tiny hill between Vail Village and Golden Peak. “Oh, God,” Landis said, according to Vestal. “I’m out of breath. I feel fat.”
Later, after crossing the finish line caked in mud, he grinned and again addressed his lack of fitness. “I haven’t suffered that much in a while.”
Although Landis never materialized as a threat to win, the fact that he was there in the first place divided the field and many of the fans before the race began. Some ” those who believe he is guilty of using synthetic testosterone to win the Tour ” spoke out sans reservation.
“I don’t think he should be competing because he’s banned from any sanctioned competitions,” said Durango’s Travis Brown, a legendary U.S. rider and 2000 Olympian, who won the Teva Games race in 2004 and was mountain biking’s first male Everest Award winner. “When his appeal comes out, if he’s cleared, then it’d be OK. But I don’t think it reflects well on the Teva Games or mountain biking to have him here.”
Brown took fourth in Saturday’s race, which is privately run and not sanctioned by any governing body. He said he believes Landis’ decision to race at the well-regarded Games was a strategic move, one aimed at portraying him in a favorable light. “Without question,” Brown said.
Another pro, Boulder’s Nick Martin, shared Brown’s sentiments when asked in the Trek trailer how he viewed Landis’ involvement.
“Oh, dude, it’s pretty simple,” Martin said, pointing at his black wristband, which read in white letters: “Dopers Suck.”
Multiple racers in Saturday’s pro field wore jerseys emblazoned with the same message, and after the race a young man wearing a “Dopers Suck” T-shirt tried to get in a TV shot during a local station’s interview with Landis.
Immediately, Landis’ Athletes for a Cure media representative, Scott Zagarino ” who said he fielded “thousands” of interview requests for Landis in the weeks leading up to the Teva Games ” chased the young man away while berating him as a “dips—.”
During the race, a pair of pros in 19th and 20th place during the first lap were riding high on the mountain, far from the throngs below. Apparently disappointed with their showing to that point in the race, one shouted to the other: “Look on the bright side! We’re in front of Floyd Landis and he’s on drugs!”
Down below, Landis’ supporters far outnumbered those opposed to his presence. One Eagle County local showed up with a white T-shirt he’d made that morning, on which he wrote “I believe Floyd” with a black magic marker. The man ran alongside Landis during a grueling uphill section before sending off the Tour champ with a push from behind.
Landis allowed a few brief smiles while on course, gritting his teeth at the same time. He was polite when he passed other cyclists on course, according to one female rider. And he dealt with hazards the same as the rest of the field, walking his bike up one particularly difficult switchback and briefly unclipping during a twisty, technical descent.
When he finished, Landis coasted through the chute without acknowledging the crowd’s loud applause. Instead, he wiped his nose and cruised until he came to a stop. A few random onlookers congratulated him and one racer asked to have his picture taken with him.
“Thanks for showing up,” a woman said.
Landis completed his interview obligations ” including one with RSN’s Glen Plake, who sported a 14-inch purple mohawk and talked with the Tour champ about his mountain biking roots ” then Landis disappeared into the crowd.
Meanwhile, a few minutes after claiming one of the biggest wins of his career, local boy Jay Henry explained why he didn’t have a problem with Landis showing up ” even though the 49th-place finisher had upstaged Henry on his home turf.
“If a third of these people are here to see Floyd,” Henry said, looking around at the sun-drenched masses, “I think it’s great. Because this is the biggest crowd I’ve seen at a mountain bike race in a long time.”
Devon O’Neil can be contacted at (970) 668-4633, or at email@example.com.
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