Landis insists he's innocent

Tour de France champ suspended from team after test reveals high levels of testosterone

July 28, 2006|By ALAN ABRAHAMSON | ALAN ABRAHAMSON,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Landis insists he's innocent American cyclist Floyd Landis pleaded with fans and the sports world yesterday, asking for a chance to prove his innocence in the face of disclosures that he failed a drug test en route to a dramatic triumph in the Tour de France.

In a conference call with reporters four days after his victory, the popular cyclist denied using performance-enhancing drugs. He complained that "a lot of people are going to feel I'm guilty before I've had a chance to defend myself."

Landis said, "I would like to be presumed innocent until proven guilty - since that's the way we do things in America."

His coach, Robbie Ventura, said Landis "did nothing wrong," and predicted: "They're going to find no evidence, no proof" he used drugs.

Landis' cycling team, Swiss-based Phonak, announced earlier yesterday that Landis had tested positive for elevated levels of testosterone, a banned substance. The team suspended him pending further inquiry.

The high levels of testosterone were detected in a urine sample taken after Stage 17, one of the most remarkable rides in the annals of professional cycling.

On July 20, Landis broke away from the pack and, attacking over a series of Alpine passes, won the grueling mountain stage by nearly six minutes. Coming the day after a disappointing performance had cost him the lead, Stage 17 thrust him back into contention.

News of the test results stunned the sports world. Landis, who raced with a painful hip ailment, had emerged as a new sports hero. That status, as well as his race victory, could be jeopardized.

Landis, 30, who grew up in Farmersville, Pa., and now lives in Murrieta, Calif., was not charged yesterday with a doping offense, and as is customary, additional testing will be conducted.

His backup "B" sample is due to be tested in the coming days; if it also turns up elevated levels, that would prompt formal allegations of an offense. Hearings that would typically follow that could lead to the finding of a violation.

A violation would mean the loss of his Tour win and a probable two-year suspension. A violation, U.S. Olympic Committee chairman Peter Ueberroth said in a statement, would be "an incredible disappointment."

"The bottom line is this: While good progress has been made in the fight against doping in sport, we believe that much more needs to be done," said Ueberroth, former commissioner of Major League Baseball.

Greg Lemond, a three-time winner of the Tour, the first in 1986, said yesterday on ESPN's Outside the Lines that if "there was an upside to a downside story," it's that "this could be the best thing moving forward for cycling and sports in general.

"I think there is nobody who wants to see cheaters winning races. I'm not saying Landis is a cheater - I will wait until that [backup] sample comes out. I have a lot of respect for Landis. I hope it isn't the case."

Testosterone, used for strength and endurance, is included on the World Anti-Doping Agency's list of banned substances.

Experts measure the amount of testosterone against a substance that also occurs naturally in the body, epitestosterone.

Typically, the ratio is 1-to-1. Anything over 4-to-1 is suspect. The process - including finding out if there is a naturally occurring explanation for a high ratio - can be lengthy.

It remains uncertain if the French lab that conducted tests on Landis' sample at issue has performed or will perform an additional test, called a Carbon Isotope Ratio analysis. It can show definitively whether testosterone was produced naturally or not.

Landis said yesterday that he has a thyroid condition and has been taking small amounts of medication daily. He also said he had received a waiver from cycling officials for the use of cortisone, a substance that would otherwise be banned, for an ailing hip.

The night before Stage 17, convinced he had little chance to win the Tour, he had a beer and some Jack Daniels whiskey, he said.

But he said he had no idea why his testosterone levels were, as his Phonak team put it in a public statement, "unusual."

Asked if he had ever taken performance-enhancing drugs, he replied, "I'll say no," adding, "I'll say no knowing a lot of people are going to feel I'm guilty before I've had a chance to defend myself. But there you have it."

A doping violation involving the champion could prove to be one of the biggest scandals in the Tour de France's lengthy history - and the Tour, especially in recent years, has been stained by a series of doping issues. If Landis proves liable, organizers said, "the feelings of all Tour de France enthusiasts will be dominated by anger and sadness."

This year's Tour de France got under way only after the second-, third- and fourth-place finishers in the 2005 Tour, among others, were barred after being implicated in a doping-related inquiry in Spain.

In 1998, the Tour almost collapsed when police nabbed a Festina team employee with drugs. Some Tour riders were ejected. Others quit.

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