Tooele » As Deron Williams and Floyd Landis laughed and mugged for the cameras and then mounted up on their bikes Friday evening here on the track at Miller Motorsports Park for the first leg of a crossover duel that later migrated to an outdoor basketball court for Leg 2, a serious question hovered.
It hovered and wafted, but remained mostly unspoken.
First, the fun.
Emerging from a back room, Williams, comically shrink-wrapped in traditional cycling garb -- a jersey and bib shorts -- with Utah Jazz logos splashed all around, had the mixed, conflicted look of an uber-competitive athlete completely out of his element.
Although he appeared cut, fit and healthy, Williams knew he was overmatched against a world-class cyclist on the track. But he didn't want to embarrass himself in front of a gathering of hundreds of people, as well as TV cameras and news photographers. Pride is one of the point guard's signature traits, even dressed out in protective headgear that would have done Lord Helmet proud.
No doubt, Williams wanted to show well, even in a concocted publicity stunt for the 2009 Tour of Utah, an upcoming cycling race operated by Jazz owners Greg and Steve Miller.
The first leg's simple ground rules: Williams gets a one-minute head start on a 2.2-mile course.
As he rode off, Landis still anchored at the start, Deron's longtime friend, Matt Mitnick, showed me a short video on his I-Phone of Williams' cycling prowess. Two days before, the point guard decided he'd better practice, so he clipped into the pedals of a racing bike, rolled about 50 yards before face-planting when he tried to stop but couldn't remove his feet to catch his balance. He fell over like a kid without training wheels.
Mitnick, who had recorded the video, looked at me with a big grin on his face. I laughed out loud. It was funny.
By that time, Landis had left the gate and was closing on Williams. His quick move was impressive, but Williams, as long as he didn't have to stop, was no slouch. By the end, with the crowd ringing cowbells and cheering loudly, Landis was right on Williams' back wheel. He made up the one minute, but Williams crossed the finish line first.
Which was great ... until Williams had to stop. When he did, he fell over again.
"My legs are Jell-O," he said.
"I was just trying to win," he added.
Meanwhile, Williams, now beaming with confidence, sent a tweet to Shaquille O'Neal, challenging him to a race.
"It's all fun," he said. "... I feel like I just rode a hundred miles."
For his part, Landis requested a rematch: "I thought I was going to get him."
In the duel's second leg, over on a makeshift court, the skinny cyclist donned a Jazz uniform that was as baggy and bloused out as Williams' cycling kit was tight. The combo squeezed off all kinds of shots in a sloppy shootout, with Landis looking as though he were cleaning and jerking two tons of iron plates. Basically, he sucked.
Williams could have beaten him with a grocery bag over his head. Shaq could have beaten him. Everybody laughed. Everybody had a good time, regardless, and the Tour of Utah, in which Landis will be riding with his OUCH Pro Cycling Team from Aug. 18th to the 23rd, got some needed attention, thanks to Williams.
Still, the serious question lingered.
Why would the Jazz want the face of their franchise linked to a cyclist who had indeed won the Tour de France a few years back, but who had also had that title taken away because of a positive drug test, and who had been denied after multiple appeals?
Would they want Williams tied to Barry Bonds? Mark McGwire? Ben Johnson? Marion Jones?
I asked Greg Miller, an avid cyclist who rode 4,000 miles in 2008 and who was on hand Friday, that question.
"I'm not one to dwell on the past," he said. "There was so much going on at the time of that testing. The standards, I've been told, were anything but consistent. I believe there was a lack of integrity in the testing."
Miller said he had seen and read convincing information and arguments both defending Landis and prosecuting him, and that he was, from a distance, unable to come to any firm conclusion regarding whether the racer doped or didn't. Either way, Landis' 2006 Tour title was stripped and he subsequently sat out a two-year suspension for testing positive for synthetic testosterone at that race. He maintained his innocence, and spent the two years and a reported $2 million on his defense, to no avail.
Now, he's back racing. Miller brushed aside the negatives in using the famous rider as part of Tour of Utah's promotion with Williams, even as infamy overshadows the fame.
"Cycling has come out of that era," Miller said. "I believe there's more healthy, honest competition now. And I want to focus on the positives -- good health and good competition."
A cloud, though, and the ever-present question -- Is Landis a victim or a cheat? -- dogs the racer still, and likely will for a long time to come.