Floyd Landis is back in the cycling game, and this time it's on his own terms

Floyd Landis is sponsoring a team of 12 riders with varying levels of experience. Brian Hodes/Velo Images

TUCSON -- The first day of the rest of the winding and unlikely cycling life of Floyd Landis dawns at an equally unlikely landmark: a huddle of crumbling concrete structures that sit on open desert just off Interstate 8 between Phoenix and Tucson.

Built in the early '80s and abandoned by an electronics company that went belly-up, The Domes, as they're known, were coated with spray foam whose skin has peeled away over time to reveal a deep honeycomb hue beneath. Multicolored graffiti is slathered inside and out. Charred wood and telltale odors bear witness to other recent visitors. It has the feel of an outdated sci-fi movie set.

Barbed wire separating the odd venue from the road has been bent by past pilgrims until it almost touches the ground. Landis easily steps over it to join the dozen riders under contract with Floyd's Pro Cycling for the 2019 season as they pose at the mouth of one flying-saucer-shaped edifice in bright teal kits that pop against the darkness behind them.

Exercising his prerogative as team owner, Landis has eschewed Spandex for jeans and a T-shirt emblazoned with the logo for the Floyd's of Leadville brand, which markets hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD) products. He stands among the riders at first and then is asked to move into the foreground. "I don't know what to do with my hands,'' he says, laughing. He finally slips them into his front pockets and adopts a pleasantly stoic expression.

Not so long ago, this scene would have seemed an implausible sequel to what came before. Landis broke into the sport as a fallen-away Mennonite mountain biker, switched to road racing and became a domestique for the dynastic U.S. Postal Service squad. That was followed in quick succession by stints as Phonak team leader, short-lived Tour de France title holder, bunkered-in doping defendant, swindler of aggrieved supporters and, in an explosive denouement, angry subversive whose confessions triggered the slow-moving tsunami that eventually swept away the myth of Lance Armstrong.

Landis -- later backed by the U.S. Department of Justice -- sued Armstrong and his business partners in federal court, claiming they had defrauded the Postal Service. As the case dawdled through eight years of legal maneuvering, Landis retreated from the public eye, wrestled with depression, then emerged on more solid ground with a committed relationship, a young daughter and a new venture in the burgeoning cannabis industry.

His bond with bike racing remained fraught. Most of his better-known contemporaries survived their own doping revelations and found niches in the sport. But Landis didn't contemplate clipping back into that world until last summer, after a settlement in the federal suit left him with roughly $1 million, before taxes and legal fees, for his role as whistleblower.

Last year was a deflating one for North American riders, as several established domestic teams teetered economically. Silber Pro Cycling, a Canadian developmental team directed by respected former pro Gord Fraser, entered its fifth and final year of existence without any successor sponsor in the wings.

Fraser invited Landis for a ride in the team car on a stage of the Colorado Classic in Vail. The two had remained close in the nearly 20 years since they were teammates at Mercury Cycling. "I had a different career trajectory, and I made different decisions, but we've always been friends,'' Fraser says. "A lot of people hitched on the skyward rocket and then jumped ship. I felt he was family.''

The idea of rescuing the team appealed to Landis for several reasons, not least of which was that Silber's management company was licensed in Canada and thus a step removed from his contentious history with USA Cycling. He pledged about half of the settlement toward the sponsorship, which was announced in October. The team eventually took the name "Floyd's Pro Cycling'' rather than referencing the Leadville brand because of Canadian regulations regarding promotion of CBD products.

"It was never about the money, although that was one of the other side's talking points,'' Landis says while sitting on the back porch of an Airbnb house in Tucson on Friday after the team photo shoot, his first in-person encounter with most of the riders. "There was no other way to prove it than by doing something else with it. Cycling was definitely damaged by the way everything got exposed.''

Call it paying things forward. Call it paid advertising. Call it a thumb in the eye of those who would prefer he stay out of cycling. Call it all of the above. There's no blood test for sincerity, but Landis says he hopes people will recognize his motivation to help. Younger riders, he says, remind him of a time when riding his bike was an uncomplicated endeavor.

After Friday's photo shoot and training ride, Travis McCabe stretches on the floor of a high-ceilinged living room in the house rented for the team's preseason camp. The breathtaking, green-and-gold landscape of Saguaro National Park glows beyond the picture windows. Fittingly for a team that will race on varied surfaces -- McCabe is stoked to ride his hometown "Whiskey 50" mountain bike event next month in Prescott, Arizona -- the house is on an unpaved road.

This isn't where McCabe might have pictured himself in August 2018, when he was scoring stage wins in the Colorado Classic and the Tour of Utah yet faced an uncertain future. United Healthcare, one of the longest-running and most stable sponsors in the domestic peloton, was bowing out, and the gifted sprinter was looking for a new ride in a tight market that saw several other teams struggling and downsizing.

McCabe, 29, was well-acquainted with Fraser, a longtime Tucson resident, and listened intently when Fraser said he'd landed a then-unnamed but intriguing backer. The rider had no second thoughts when he found out who it was.

"Honestly, I've gotten a lot more positive comments than negative,'' says McCabe, who also considered joining the team sponsored by George Hincapie, a stalwart on several teams, including the Armstrong-led Postal.

"If people are trying to right their wrongs, and they still care about cycling, this is their way of contributing back to us. And I'm grateful for it." Travis McCabe

"If people are trying to right their wrongs, and they still care about cycling, this is their way of contributing back to us. And I'm grateful for it.''

Landis' saga isn't exactly ancient history to McCabe and his teammates, but enough time has elapsed that it isn't a deal-breaker, and they appear to regard him as a benign benefactor. It was Fraser's role as hands-on director that was key for most of the riders, who range from age 19 to 34 and represent the usual mix of youth and experience that characterizes a Continental-level team, the third tier of elite competition.

Fraser says he isn't worried about Landis-related blowback. "This is a passionate project that is a part of me, and I wasn't willing to give it up,'' he says. "I'm happy I get to do this job for another year.''

The roster includes six Canadians, one apiece from Australia and Romania, and four U.S. riders. Noah Granigan, 23, is wrapping up an engineering degree at the University of Colorado, where he was part of a national collegiate championship, and 29-year-old Jake Sitler, whose wife is expecting their first child, works for Floyd's of Leadville in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where Landis grew up. The company will open a combination bike shop-café in downtown Lancaster this spring and, thanks to recent changes in state agricultural law, is currently in talks with local farmers about growing hemp from proprietary seed.

Every bike team in preseason training camp sits through sponsor presentations about gear or energy drinks or a larger mission outside cycling. That ritual takes a bit of a twist for the Floyd's Pro Cycling riders, who gather on an enormous sectional couch for a talk about what distinguishes CBD products from marijuana. (Landis owns a separate recreational cannabis company with dispensaries in Oregon and Colorado.) Landis and other Leadville staff and investors -- including retired time trial specialist Dave Zabriskie, one of Landis' best friends -- banter beforehand, wearing shirts bearing the company slogan, "Relax and Recover.''

Then Landis is asked to make a few opening remarks.

"First of all, I want to say I enjoyed meeting you guys this morning,'' he says in a muted voice barely audible at the edges of the room. "I just also wanted to say thanks for sort of accepting whatever collateral comes with being involved with us. I think most of it will be positive, but you never know.''

Another Leadville staffer tells the team to be informed and ready if fans or media ask about CBD products, which are marketed as remedies for pain, inflammation, anxiety and sleep disorders, but feel no pressure to use them. Some CBD products have trace amounts of THC, whose psychoactive effects produce a high, and others are processed to eliminate it. The World Anti-Doping Agency prohibits cannabis in-competition only, but the riders are advised to steer clear of usage habits that could trigger an adverse test result.

That night, the team gathers for its first public appearance, a party in the back room of a restaurant called Culinary Dropout. Veteran race announcer Dave Towle serves as master of ceremonies and introduces each rider with his customary booming voice and unrestrained enthusiasm. In a side conversation, Towle says he came out of loyalty to Landis, who showed up and offered support when he was hospitalized with a life-threatening case of acute pancreatitis in 2017 -- even though Towle had distanced himself from Landis for a time during the height of the Armstrong drama.

The beer is flowing, the music is loud, and much of the crowd is otherwise distracted when Towle finishes his presentation by declaring, "And Floyd -- wherever Floyd is -- let's give him a big hand!''

Some people clap and turn their heads, searching for Landis, but he's mingling out of the spotlight, and the moment of acknowledgment passes. That's OK with him. Being there is enough.