In founding a new team, the fallen cyclist is seeking forgiveness, which many fans may not be willing to give
Last week, more than a decade after a failed drug test at the Tour de France led to the spectacular collapse of his bike racing career, Floyd Landis announced he would return to cycling. The retired and often-reviled American will be the financial backer of a brand new North American Continental team that will race under the banner of his Leadville, Colorado-based cannabis company, Floyd’s of Leadville. As if the irony of a convicted doper sponsoring a cycling team under the title of a pot brand isn’t enough, Landis will fund the team with the money he won in the whistleblower lawsuit that he filed against Lance Armstrong.
To unpack that, you have to back up to Stage 17 of the 2006 Tour de France, when Landis rode what is surely one of the most impressive and unbelievable races of all time and paved the way for his overall victory in Paris four days later. Everything that followed—his positive test for synthetic testosterone and subsequent loss of the Tour title, his two-year ban from cycling and the money he raised from fans to help with his defense, his eventual confession and public accusations of doping against Armstrong and other past teammates, and finally his civil lawsuit against Armstrong, which was joined by the U.S. government—led many cycling enthusiasts to loathe Landis. Not only was he a cheat, the argument went, he was a rat who was profiting off of his deceit. That narrative was reinforced when Armstrong settled the lawsuit, and Landis was awarded $1.1 million dollars.
“A lot of people believed that my coming clean and the lawsuit was about the money. Like I was going to take the cash and ride into the sunset. But it was never about that,” says Landis, who adds that he truly thought some progress could come of his disclosures. “So I’ve been looking for something to do with that money. And finally I decided that if I could put it back into cycling, maybe it would bring some closure to the whole thing. I feel like it’s a good way to take something bad and turn it into good.”
Landis says that after taxes and legal fees, he was left with around $750,000 from the settlement. He is using all of that money to start the new team, with Floyd’s of Leadville contributing the remainder of the approximately $1 million team budget for 2019.
The team will be a development squad for young riders, headed by three-time Canadian Olympian and domestic racing superstar Gord Fraser. A highly successful and respected racer who shunned the European racing scene for the North American circuit, Fraser has worked as director sportif for several of the biggest Continental and Pro Continental teams since his retirement, including United Healthcare-Maxxis, Team Exergy, and, most recently, Silber Pro Cycling. “Gord made decisions that I didn’t, and he had a good career without ever getting into the dark side,” says Landis. The timing couldn’t be better for domestic racing, which is foundering. This season, three top teams, United Healthcare, Jelly Belly–Maxxis, and Silber Pro Cycling, have been struggling for sponsors and are shuttering their operations.
Landis’s announcement was met with the inevitable skepticism and derision, and cycling forums were awash with vitriol. “Floyd, you frauded me and thousands of others with your book sales for your defense…You are a crook,” wrote one. “Why should anyone give the benefit of doubt to a drug cheat? [Floyd] shouldn't be anywhere near the sport,” said another.
Following the doping positive, when Landis was still denying the charges and fighting his ban with litigation, he raised money from supporters through sales of his book, Positively False, and contributions to what he called the Floyd Fairness Fund. After Landis admitted to doping, some supporters felt duped and cheated. But in a deal to avoid criminal prosecution, Landis agreed to a three-year plan to repay $478,354 to donors. “I always felt terribly about that, and I repaid everything on the schedule I committed to,” Landis says. “If there’s anyone out there who still feels they haven’t gotten their due, they should reach out and I’ll happily pay them.”
“I understand why some people are mad,” he continues. “It would be nice if you could start over, just wipe the slate clean, but I can’t do that. I am where all of my past and my decisions have brought me. But I’m trying to demonstrate my honest remorse.” On the other hand, he points out that he’s no different from many others in the cycling industry. “Try and point out one team, just one single team, that doesn’t have an affiliation with someone from the past,” he says. “If that’s your standard, you should stop following cycling.”
The implication is that little has changed in cycling, at least at the top echelons of the sport. “The Americans got punished, everyone else skated, and they are all still in the sport. It was never clean at the top, and it never will be,” Landis says. Last week, Alejandro Valverde, who has a history with doping that dates back to Landis’s days, won his first World Championship at the somewhat incredible age of 38, and just a few weeks before that, British cyclist Simon Yates, who served a doping ban two years ago, won the Vuelta a España. Meanwhile, the biggest story in cycling this year was Chris Froome’s “adverse analytical finding” for salbutamol, a controlled substance, and the UCI’s decision to dismiss the case without any public explanation. “If fans are watching that and thinking it’s clean,” says Landis, “they are just going to be let down again.”
Landis believes it’s possible to race competitively at the domestic level without doping. “That’s why we’re doing it,” he says. “If we can guide some young racers through it, show them what they are going to face and help them avoid some of the decisions that I made, it will be worth it.”
It’s clear that he hopes the new team and his investment in cycling will help to change, or at least mitigate, his legacy. And the truth is, not only is Landis one of the few disgraced cyclists who has shown real contrition, but his new team is actually an important and tangible contribution back to the sport. Still, it’s difficult to imagine him ever completely rewriting his reputation. In May, when Froome pulled off an almost inconceivable comeback on the penultimate stage of the Giro d’Italia to secure his first win at that grand tour, another contender in the race, George Bennett, quipped at the finish line, “No way! He did Landis.”