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February 10, 2009

Landis, disgraced in France, makes his comeback at Tour of California

Floyd Landis, the Pennsylvania country kid who won the 2006 Tour de France in spectacular fashion, then lost the title on drug charges, returns to racing in the Amgen Tour of California, eager and nervous after a bitter two-year suspension from the sport.

Floyd Landis, the Pennsylvania country kid who won the 2006 Tour de France in spectacular fashion, then lost the title on drug charges, returns to racing in the Amgen Tour of California, eager and nervous after a bitter two-year suspension from the sport.

Unlike his former teammate, seven-time Tour de France champ Lance Armstrong, who's promoting cancer research in his own comeback, Landis doesn't have grand plans.

He says his quest is simple: happiness.

Landis, now living near San Diego, spent the past few years alienated from cycling, fighting drug charges as doggedly as he ever raced a bike. He lost. It's over, he says. He's back on his bike and finally feeling normal again.

"I feel like a kid again," Landis said. "I'm going to enjoy it."

His first race back is huge. The fourth Tour of California, a nine-day event, begins with Saturday's prologue in Sacramento and continues with a Stage 3 finish in Modesto (Feb. 17) and a Stage 4 start in Merced (Feb. 18).

Besides Landis and Armstrong, there's two-time race champion Levi Leipheimer of Santa Rosa, as well as 2008 Olympic road race champion Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland. Last year's Tour de France winner, Carlos Sastre of Spain, is here, and Italy's Ivan Basso is back from his own drug suspension.

The 33-year-old Landis says he's in good shape, but he's vague about his expectations for the race. He'll ride hard and see what happens.

It's a different perspective from the one Landis brought three years ago during the inaugural Tour of California.

Armstrong had just retired, and cycling was looking for a new champion.

Landis nominated himself by winning the Tours of California and Georgia with a grit that showed he no longer was the sidekick Armstrong once scolded for his laid-back ways.

Landis then rode to the pinnacle that July, winning the Tour de France in stunning fashion with a mountain ride some were calling the greatest in history.

It all came crashing down

The glory didn't last. Days after the race, word leaked that Landis had tested positive for testosterone imbalance, indicating use of synthetic testosterone. The revelation was shocking, even in a sport where performance-enhancing drugs have been a festering, ill-kept secret for years.

Some of the shock had to do with Landis' simple roots. He is the son of devout Mennonites in rural Pennsylvania who only wanted for their son "a life of integrity," his mother once told reporters.

Landis dug in his heels, hired lawyers and reportedly spent more than a $1 million fighting the charges, arguing his innocence and challenging the way testing procedures were handled.

His life seemed stuck by the side of the road. A close friend committed suicide. Landis' manager was caught threatening a witness in the case. Landis says he lost his desire to bike.

"There were times when I didn't know if I wanted to race again," he said. "I was overwhelmed by bad associations for the whole thing."

An international panel last year rejected Landis' final effort to clear his name and regain his Tour de France title.

He says he's glad it's over.

"I am most certainly not happy about the way it went the last two years," he said. "It was unfair. But a lot of things are unfair."

He will not be racing angry, he said. He isn't trying to prove anything to anybody.

His suspension was lifted Jan. 31. The Tour of California likely will be the biggest race he will ride this year.

For now, he is not allowed to enter major European races. It would be exciting, Landis said, to get back to the Tour de France some day, "but I can't say I have to go back to make things right."

He's now the 'Bionic Biker'

Landis has one reason to feel fortunate this week. Even as he was winning races in 2006, his right hip was crumbling, the result of a crash years earlier that limited blood to the top of his femur.

Fearing a career cut short, Landis withstood the pain until after the 2006 Tour de France, then underwent surgery. Doctors fitted him with a cobalt and chrome femoral cap and cup called the Birmingham Hip.

Landis is coming back this week as the Bionic Biker, a cycling experiment. He says his hip feels surprisingly good.

"Floyd is going someplace no one else has gone," said Joe DeVivo, president of orthopedics at Smith & Nephew, the company that makes the hip. "He could be the first professional athlete to return to the highest level of sport with an active implant."

Landis will be riding with the word "OUCH" in large letters on his chest. It's the name of the Temecula-based medical clinic that made his return possible, and the name of the racing squad that has made Landis its leader.

Landis guessed his chest emblem may be worth a pun or two.

"I'd prefer that over 'Kazakhstan,' he joked, referring to the country that sponsors Armstrong's team. "Good luck spelling that!"

Landis: 'I won't avoid' Armstrong

Armstrong recently called Landis' return good for cycling. The two, both strong personalities, have had an up-and-down relationship. Will Landis seek Armstrong out in Sacramento?

"I won't avoid him," Landis said. "I'll be focused on my team and myself."

Other riders say they look forward to interesting street theater with the two back in the peloton. Former Landis teammate Mike Sayers calls them "alpha dogs."

"I think Lance and Floyd are more alike than either would admit," Sayers said. "Guys who are not intimidated. Guys who compete at everything."

That may be where the similarity ends.

Armstrong will spend the week in the media glare, to an extent courting it. In contrast, Landis said he just hopes for a decent reception among the riders. "I respect them, and I hope they have respect for me."

Sayers envisions no problems. Landis has done his time, he said. "Floyd is a good person. I think he is going to get a warm reception."

Former teammate Chris Horner said more than a few riders will be sympathetic, given their own questions and worries about the sport's drug-testing process.

"I still consider him the winner of the Tour de France," Horner said. "He'll have a chip on his shoulder, for sure. The Tour of California could be quite a good show."

Landis says he believes he's ready. He knows he's back where he wants to be.

"The atmosphere, the excitement, the adrenaline," he said. "I've missed it. I don't want it to end just yet."

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