<
>

Cyclists, neighbors in California town back Landis

8/5/2006

MURRIETA, Calif. -- Green and gold signs celebrating Floyd
Landis' Tour de France victory still hung by a freeway off-ramp and
on the gates of the private community where the cyclist holed up
Saturday.

The festive billboards stood in sharp contrast to the doping
scandal that has enveloped Landis and heated up Saturday when a
second test revealed abnormal testosterone levels, putting his
title in jeopardy.

"I don't think he's guilty after knowing the guy, who he is,
what he's about," said Matt Barringer, the owner of I.E. Bikes in
Murrieta, a bedroom community of 92,000 nestled into rolling inland
hills halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego. "I have a hard
time believing he would do anything like that."

A man identifying himself as a family friend, who asked that his
name not be used, answered the phone at Landis' house and said the
cyclist was there.

"We're drinking some coffee, and that's about it," he said.

Police asked an Associated Press reporter to leave the private
development where Landis lives when she attempted to approach his
house. Several cars were parked in front, and the blinds were
drawn.

But about two miles away, the community's feelings were very
transparent.

A foam-board sign emblazoned "Congratulations, Floyd!" and
crowded with enthusiastic messages from friends and fans sat in the
window of a local bike shop where Landis' 2004 Tour jersey hangs on
the wall.

"Behind you all the way!" read one entry, from the Velez
family.

Those who know Landis said they believe he did not cheat.

Barringer said Landis regularly hangs out at the bike shop,
which has its own bike team. Saturday, several riders, sporting
blue and white jerseys, gathered at the shop, and the talk veered
to doping.

"I know Floyd, and if he says he didn't do it, then he
didn't," said Ernie Sanchez, a peace officer in San Bernardino.

He said he spoke with Landis last week and that he sounded
anxious.

"I think it's just that something so positive turned into
something so negative so quickly for him," Sanchez said.

Others in town see Landis, who competed with a painful arthritic
right hip, as an inspiration -- despite the doping accusations.

"I got caught up in the Tour because of him," said Cindy
Russell, a Murrieta resident who said she attends the same church
as one of Landis' doctors. "The pastor was talking about him still
racing through all that pain, and I think it's really awesome. So
my heart goes out to him."

If found guilty, Landis would become the first winner in the
103-year history of cycling's premier race to lose his Tour crown
over doping allegations.

Doping allegations first surfaced in late July, after urine
tests conducted following Landis' victory in the Tour's 17th stage
turned up testosterone levels in excess of approved limits.
Subsequent tests have found synthetic testosterone, suggesting it
was ingested.

It was that stellar ride in Stage 17 that put Landis back in
contention to win the Tour after cracking the previous day.

Local fans printed up bright yellow T-shirts that said "Stage
17 -- Never Quit!"

"I guess now it means something different," said Sharon
Roberts, who rides for the I.E. Bikes racing team. "But he knew if
he won, he was going to be tested. So why would he ruin his career
for one day? Just to show what he can do? Just to show that he can
be Superman?"