Race heats up as Landis crashes ToC
LOS ANGELES -- As three-time defending Tour of California champion Levi Leipheimer sprinted past the Stage 7 finish line, Floyd Landis took a bite of coleslaw inside a hospitality tent a few yards away. What was the winner of the first Tour of California thinking as he watched the final minutes of a race in which he desperately wanted to compete? Who knows. Landis' face revealed no emotion when Leipheimer passed him, nor when his former teammate Dave Zabriskie zipped by, nor when Tour leader Michael Rogers sailed by shortly after that.
The Tour of California passed by the former champ who hijacked its spotlight this week, and Landis had nothing to say. Of course he had already said plenty. Earlier this week, Landis confessed to ESPN.com that he doped throughout his career and alleged that several other riders, including Lance Armstrong, Leipheimer and Zabriskie, did as well. Ever since, the focus at the Tour of California has been more on what allegedly happened four to eight years ago than what is happening this week.
"He's increased the audience, but he's ruined the message," said Bob Stapleton, the owner of Team HTC-Columbia. "The message is this sport is part of a healthy lifestyle for 160 million people in the U.S. and Europe alone. He's talking about the history of the sport, but this sport has a good future and it's in the Tony Martins and the Mark Cavendishs and the Tyler Farrars, the guys who are growing up in a different generation of the sport. This sport has made remarkable, objective progress since Floyd Landis."
Among the e-mails RadioShack released Friday was one from Landis to Andrew Messick, the president of AEG Sports, which owns the Tour of California. Upset his OUCH-Bahati Foundation team was not invited to ride in the Tour, Landis wrote that Messick should refund the $40,000 that the team had paid for a VIP tent at Saturday's time trial, a request Messick termed "massively inappropriate."
Dr. Brent Kay, the principle sponsor of the OUCH team as well as Landis' personal physician, welcomed me into the tent Saturday (he said the tent cost $20,000, not $40,000). He's an avid cyclist who said he rode Saturday's amateur time trial race in 50 minutes, not much slower than the time of Dominique Rollin in the ToC race. He also said he believes Landis' allegations, that he was very surprised the e-mails became public and that the whole situation has been overwhelming.
Landis showed up at 3:10 p.m., just before the final cyclists started their rides. It was an odd scene. Three ToC staffers in polo shirts stood in front of the entrance. Two armed private security guards were stationed inside. A very muscled personal security guard stayed close to Landis. At one point, a metal barricade was added to the Fortress of Floyd-itude.
I was among the few reporters allowed inside the tent, not that it did much good. Why was he there? What was he feeling? Landis was polite but vague to me about whether he would take questions (Kay said he would not). When I asked him whether he had a few minutes to talk, he replied, "Give me two seconds," but many minutes later he still had not made himself available. Eventually, he slipped out the back of the tent and did not respond to any questions I asked while pursuing him down the street.
I didn't know whether to be angry at him or feel sorry for him. I settled on some of both.
"I have tons of sympathy for Floyd," Stapleton said. "I don't think anybody has suffered more who's been involved in a situation like this. It's destroyed his entire life. He has my sympathy, but I don't want him to take the focus off the good work that's been done in this sport and by these young athletes."
What happened at the actual race? HTC-Columbia's Martin won the stage with Rogers finishing second to extend his overall lead. A bike race through the streets of downtown driving-obsessed Los Angeles was remarkable for the location alone, but Rogers said he was so busy racing. "I just saw a bunch of roads."
Rogers increased his GC lead over Zabriskie from four to nine seconds, which is a good but not insurmountable lead heading into Sunday's 84-mile final stage in Thousand Oaks, four circuits around a 21-mile course with substantial climbs.
"Having surveyed the course, it can be windy and there are couple of big climbs," Zabriskie said. "It's not very much fun."
"Of course, it's not a huge lead, but nine seconds is nine seconds," said Rogers, who leads the third-place Leipheimer by 25 seconds. "And if you count out nine seconds, it's a lot of meters."
"I think this race is still wide open," said Stapleton, whose team lost Cavendish and Mark Renshaw when they dropped out of the time trial. "This is no victory lap on that course. It's hard. And I think it's going to be a war. I think it will be a very exciting race, but I don't think it's over.
"I feel good about our chances. We have the lead. No one has been able to get away from Rogers the whole race. Absent some misfortune, I think our chances are very good. I think it's going to be a crazy race."
It's also the last chance for the Tour of California to escape the gravitational pull of Planet Floyd and get the public's focus back on the cyclists who are actually still in the race, not the ones who just wanted to be.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His website is at jimcaple.net.
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