- The Washington Times - Friday, July 28, 2006

Talk about letting the air out of the tires.

News that Tour de France winner Floyd Landis tested positive for unusually high amounts of testosterone is seen as a major blow to an event already struggling through scandal and dwindling interest.

Landis was viewed as the savior, the man to help cycling’s premier event return to the public consciousness after last year’s retirement of seven-time winner Lance Armstrong.

Now, the integrity of Landis’ win appears to ride on the result of a test on a backup “B” sample, designed to determine whether the first positive test could have been a mistake. His positive test comes just weeks after nine top riders were banned from the Tour for their connection to a wide-reaching doping investigation.

“It’s bad for the health of the sport, certainly,” said Timothy Ferriss, a San Jose-based nutrition expert who has worked with more than 30 top athletes on ways to increase performance naturally. “It may even elevate what [cycling] has been trying to deflect for some time, which is that we have to assume that everyone at the top levels of the sport is doping.”

Landis’ victory was filled with story lines. He was the Lancaster County (Pa.) farmboy made good. He overcame a degenerating hip that likely will be replaced. And his comeback performance after a disastrous 16th stage was seen as a historic display of guts on two wheels.

But if those stories aren’t already a footnote, they surely will be if the “B” sample confirms the first test.

“It’s always disappointing when you see something like this,” World Doping Agency chief Dick Pound told the Associated Press. “If there is a positive test, what have you got? The guys who came second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth at last year’s event have been busted in the [Spanish investigation] and now the winner of this year’s event is busted in the race itself.

“You build up and create a new hero, and he gets slapped down. It’s a serious blow.”

Cable network OLN, which broadcast the race live, saw a 50 percent drop in ratings this year compared to last, when Armstrong won his seventh straight race. But the ratings nearly doubled during the Tour’s last four days when Landis rode with the yellow jersey.

“On the American side, it’s disappointing for those connected to the sport because it had such wonderful momentum” after Armstrong, said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. “They were hoping to leverage Landis to keep some of that momentum going.”

OLN declined to comment on Landis’ positive test. But German broadcaster ZDF threatened to drop its coverage of the Tour, and asked for guarantees from UCI, cycling’s governing body, that it take firm steps against doping.

There is some hope for Landis, if history is a guide. Italian rider and Landis teammate Fabrizio Guidi tested positive for the doping agent EPO in July of last year, but was cleared after a backup test came back negative. American cyclist Tyler Hamilton tested positive for blood doping following a gold medal win at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. But he was permitted to keep his medal after the results of the “B” test were inconclusive because the sample had been improperly frozen. (Hamilton, however, is now serving a two-year suspension in connection with another positive test.)

No matter the result of the “B” test, some observers saw the reporting of Landis’ positive drug test as a sign that the sport is serious about the issue of doping.

“Actually, if there’s a silver lining in all this, it’s the fact that they had the courage to actually announce that the Tour de France winner is positive,” said three-time Tour winner Greg LeMond, in an interview with ESPN. “This is the first time in the history of the Tour de France this has ever happened. If there’s an up side to a down-side story, it’s that we, as a sport, need to clean the sport up, and they’re actually doing it.”

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