The 2009 Tour of California marks the first race back for Floyd Landis after he served a two year suspension through January of this year, though he continues to maintain his innocence. He went into the 2006 season in top condition riding for the Phonak team. He won the inaugural Tour of California and went on to win Paris-Nice, Tour de Georgia and the Tour de France. Phonak let him go following the Tour victory after a urine test came back positive for abnormal testosterone values.
"I'm very happy to be back racing here with the American riders and the international riders," Landis told Cyclingnews before the start of the 3.9 kilometre prologue on Saturday. "I feel like I've had a warm welcome back. Everyone has been very positive. I'm sure there are all types of opinions about me but I focus on the race and I feel like I am ready to be here."
Landis was pleased that Team Astana director Viatcheslav Ekimov acknowledged him as the most threatening contender. "That's a big compliment coming from someone like him," Landis said. "He was one of the best bicycle racers and is one of my favorite people so I'm honored to hear that."
Landis is now nicknamed the "Bionic Man" because of his unconventional hip replacement, a femoral head resurfacing, through OUCH Sport Medicine in September of 2006. The replacement was needed after a serious case of osteonecrosis [bone death] as a result of excessive scar tissue blocking blood flow to the hip joint.
"I had some resurfacing on my hip done a couple of years ago," said Landis who arrived in the early season in peak condition. "I've been able to train really well since then, particularly the last couple of months. We had a great training camp. Actually, we've had a couple of training camps so far. The weather for the last one was beautiful and the training was great."
Landis acknowledged that the Tour of California is the most important race on the calendar for team OUCH Presented By Maxxis and his only chance to test his legs against the ProTour peloton. "This is a very big race for our team," Landis said. "It's big because we won't be racing in Europe with the ProTour teams. The Tour of Missouri and the Tour of Utah will be big races for us too but this is definitely the most important as well as the earliest."
OUCH hosted three team training camps geared toward preparing Landis' teammates to defend a GC position. "We are all ready for this race," Landis said regarding the final camp held in Temecula, California two weeks ago. "I've been training really hard and I'm pretty sure we've got one of the best teams here. We need to be smart tactically but I don't think anyone is going to expect us to control the race. There are other teams that have more pressure on them. We'll see how that goes."
Astana is credited as being amongst the strongest team on paper with two-time defending champion Levi Leipheimer, Lance Armstrong, Chris Horner and Yaroslav Popovych. "It's clear that Astana has one of the strongest, if not the strongest team," Landis said also acknowledging teams like Saxo Bank and Garmin-Slipstream. "They've made it clear that they are here to win as well. I expect that they will be the main focus of most of the peloton. But there's a lot of other strong riders too and so it's not going to be that easy to win it."
Astana's Ekimov picks Landis as the California favourite
According to Ekimov, Astana's assistant directeur sportif, Landis is the biggest threat to Levi Leipheimer's quest to bring home a third consecutive victory.
"Landis, for sure, is hungry for the race and hungry for the win," Ekimov told Cyclingnews regarding Landis' return to the peloton after the completion of a two year suspension for a positive drug test at the 2006 Tour de France. "I think he is the number one danger here."
Ekimov also noted that Astana will be up against strong teams including Saxo Bank, Garmin-Slipstream and Cervélo TestTeam during the nine-day stage race but that the OUCH teammates have motivation to perform well on their side. "All Landis will need to do is follow wheels on the climbs and then do well in the time trial," Ekimov said who now assists the Astana captain Johan Bruyneel after competing for 16 years in the professional peloton.
"There will be two more days to control the race after that time trial but his team seems like they are very motivated," he continued. "As for OUCH, this is the biggest race of their season so it was important to them to be here on really good form."