With suspension ending, Landis talks to team about return

Floyd Landis, nearing the end of a two-year suspension for a doping conviction that cost him his 2006 Tour de France title, said Sunday he is negotiating with a U.S.-based team and hopes to begin racing shortly after he becomes eligible at the end of January.

Landis confirmed reports that he is in talks with Momentum Sports Group -- based in Oakland, Calif. -- which owns and operates a team primarily sponsored by the Health Net insurance company.

Health Net's sponsorship will end after this season and Momentum is still seeking a financial backer, which is part of the reason Landis' contract has not been finalized. Team spokesman Samir Bulsara said he could not comment on Landis' status. Rock Racing had been rumored as a possible destination for Landis, but he said he is no longer in talks about a slot there.

Landis, who turns 33 next month, said he misses racing and wants to see how he fares with a team that sticks to the domestic circuit before contemplating a return to Europe. Health Net, whose roster includes veterans Tim Johnson, Kirk O'Bee and Phil Zajicek, has been one of the leading teams in the U.S. racing scene for several years.

"I'd like to be somewhere where I have a lot of say in what I do and what I don't do," Landis said. He added that after a lengthy period during which he let his physical condition slide, he is now riding 300 to 500 miles weekly and watching his diet.

"It feels good to be in shape -- I never really understood that until I got really out of shape," Landis said.

Landis underwent a previously-scheduled hip replacement surgery in the fall of 2006 and made a full recovery. Smith & Nephew, the London-headquartered corporation that manufactures the device implanted in his hip, is among the potential sponsors for the Momentum-owned team. The cyclist has acted as a paid spokesman for the company and this weekend raced in a charity event sponsored by Smith & Nephew in Birmingham, Ala.

Landis also said he will continue to challenge the process that led to his conviction following a positive test for synthetic testosterone, although his legal team's arguments have twice been rejected by arbitration panels.

An American Arbitration Association panel agreed with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's contention that Landis had used the hormone to help him launch the strong solo effort in a Tour stage in the Alps that essentially clinched his victory. A three-man appeals panel convened by the Court of Arbitration for Sport upheld the ruling last July and gave Landis' case little credence. Landis has consistently denied using performance-enhancing drugs and attacked the entire anti-doping adjudication system during his two-year, $2 million battle.

"Even if it doesn't help me, it can't go on like that," Landis said of the system, but did not specify what his next step would be.

Landis' decision to take his fight public and post much of his defense on the Internet resulted in sharp divisions of opinion between cycling fans who delved into the case. He said he knows his return to racing could generate considerable emotion on both sides. "But whether I race or not, that's not going to change," he said. "If people don't want to let it go, I can't stop them. It's not something I'm going to want to dwell on."

His first race back could be the nine-day Tour of California in mid-February. That event is shaping up to be a dramatic one, as seven-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong last week tentatively put it on his calendar when he announced his intention to come out of retirement and compete for another title.

"I certainly didn't expect he would wish to attempt that again," said Landis, who rode for the U.S. Postal Service team in support of three of Armstrong's Tour wins before moving on to become leader of Switzerland-based Phonak for the 2005 season.

"In my experience with Lance, his main motivation when he rides is that he wants to prove something," Landis said. "I wish him the best and I hope he gets out of it what he wants to, but I'm a little baffled as to what that might be. Maybe he just wants to race his bike.

"I think it'll be good for the sport. It's good to have the best bicycle racers in races. I look forward to racing against him."

Armstrong and Landis, who were close during Landis' initial years with Postal, had a contentious relationship during the lone season when they were rivals. They later patched things up, and Armstrong made statements in support of Landis during Landis' unsuccessful attempt to clear his name.

Before his initial hearing, Landis claimed that anti-doping authorities had offered him a reduced suspension in exchange for incriminating information about Armstrong, a proposal Landis termed offensive to both men. USADA never verified that such an offer had taken place.

Landis, raised in a Mennonite family in the Lancaster, Pa., area, was a top mountain bike racer as a teenager before ascending to the highest echelon of professional road racing. He now lives outside San Diego.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.