An interview with Levi Leipheimer, April 21, 2005
As one of four Americans heading ProTour teams at the Tour de Georgia, Levi Leipheimer is one of the major contenders for overall victory in the US' biggest stage race. With a new team, new motivation and new training techniques, victory in Georgia is a definite goal, as he tells Shane Stokes.
As the Tour de Georgia gets underway, most attention has been focused on Lance Armstrong, six-time Tour de France winner, who announced his impending resignation this week. Armstrong came here last year and dominated, taking the overall plus two stage victories along the way. But there are other US riders who could top the leaderboard this time round, not least Levi Leipheimer, who makes his Georgia debut with the Gerolsteiner team.
'I'm definitely going to do my best here,' a psyched Leipheimer told Cyclingnews on Monday. 'If I continue to feel like I was before I came from Spain, then I think I can be. I am not at my top condition yet, but I still think that I could be good enough to play a major part in the race.'
Leipheimer first showed the extent of his talent with a stomping end to the 2001 season. Riding in US Postal Service colours at the time, he became the first American to finish on the podium in the Tour of Spain, and then placed fourth in the world time trial championships. He transferred to the Rabobank squad and competed with them for the next three seasons, winning the 2002 Route du Sud and finishing eighth in the Tour de France that same season.
Last year he bounced back from the broken pelvis which took him out of the 2003 Tour when he came back and took his second career top-ten placing, finishing ninth in Paris. He also took a stage win in the Semana Catalana race. Despite those good performances, he felt it was time for a new direction and so transferred from the orange of Rabobank to the aqua blue of Gerolsteiner over the winter.
'I wanted to change, to start over, start afresh with a clean slate for new motivation, and that is exactly how it has been this year,' he explains. 'I have had more motivation than I have had in a long time. Every morning when I wake up to get on the bike, I feel that extra spark that I need.'
Leipheimer has made adjustments to his training, favouring more high intensity work than in the past. If all goes to plan, the 31 year old feels a top five finish in the Tour de France is possible. But before that, this week's race offers a real chance to measure his form against some of the other big guns he will come up against in July.
Cyclingnews: How you feeling as the Tour of Georgia begins?
Levi Leipheimer: You know, after the Tour of Pais Basque I was feeling quite good in Spain. When you travel, you always lose a little bit, but hopefully it will come back. We have two stages here that we start with, which are long but they are not too demanding... They are not hilly. I'm sure it will be hard, but they are not crucial. All the riders coming from Europe will be hoping to ride into it in those first two days.
CN: When did you arrive over?
LL: I got here on Saturday. It will take a couple of days to get going.
CN: How have you felt this season. Have you been happy enough with the way things have gone?
LL: Yeah, definitely. I started well in Murcia. My next race was the Criterium International where I had a good time trial [he was 5th]. After that, I went to Pais Basque and I kind of intentionally held back a little bit there, because in the past I have gone there and I have come out very tired. It is an extremely difficult race. The weather is usually bad and the competition is very good because everybody is really at their best for the Classics which come afterwards. So, this year I wanted to just go there and use it for training. When it was finished, I was fresh and ready to continue building my condition. So I think things have gone well
CN: How are you set for the Tour of Georgia? Do you see yourself as being one of the contenders?
LL: I hope so. I'm definitely going to do my best here. If I continue to feel like I was before I came from Spain, then I think I can be. All I can do is do my best... I am not at my top condition, but I still think that I could be good enough to play a major part in the race.
CN: Is the course to your liking? You have got the time trial, then two mountainous days including the finish at Brasstown Bald Mountain to look forward to.
LL: Well, I don't know anything about them except from what I have heard. Everybody I have talked to about it really goes on about how difficult the climbs are. I'm just trying to mentally prepare for it.
CN: Who do you see as your main rivals for the overall?
LL: If I had to name one favourite, I would go with Bobby [Julich]. But I think that Lance... Well, if he has made some improvement in the last couple of weeks, then he can definitely win. So Lance, Bobby, Floyd [Landis], myself... I think those are the main guys.
CN: With four big US pros as being the big contenders, I guess the race is therefore an important event to showcase the talent that US cycling has. Especially in front of a home crowd.
LL: Definitely. It is the biggest race in the US. It is a six-day stage race with six ProTour squads and also, due to the fact that we have Bobby, Floyd, myself and Lance here with our teams, I think that it is something kinda special for American cycling.
I think [the Tour de Georgia] is definitely a good thing. Hopefully it inspires the next generation of American cyclists.
CN: Do you see anyone coming through that could potentially take over from yourself, Bobby and Lance?
LL: Eh... no. I have to be honest. Maybe no-one will ever fill Lance's shoes, especially when you consider the story of his career and his life. It is hard to say. There are guys here making progress and hopefully they will continue to grow. You never know, riders develop at different times and different ages and different speeds so. But right now, I can't think of someone to pick as an heir to the throne.
CN: After Georgia, what is your build up to the Tour like?
LL: I need to think about it more. I have been going back and forth between the Tour of Switzerland and the Dauphine. I kind of want to do the Tour of Switzerland because I have never done it before, but I believe the Dauphine is better for the Tour de France. So I will probably do the Dauphine and, before then, maybe Catalunya. It depends on my training and how I am feeling. A lot of it will boil down to how I do here - really, if I feel like I need to continue working or if I can take a break after this... We will see.
CN: You changed your team after three years with Rabobank. How are you fitting in with Gerolsteiner?
LL: It is going well. I wanted to change, to start over, start afresh with a clean slate for new motivation, and that is exactly how it has been this year. I have had more motivation than I have had in a long time. Every morning when I wake up to get on the bike, I feel that extra spark that I need.
CN: I believe you have changed your training a lot this year too.
LL: Yeah, I have. I have changed a lot - my team, my training, my mentality, everything.
CN: It is quite early to tell, but as a result of those changes, have you noticed any difference in your performances?
LL: Yeah. I went to the wind tunnel earlier this year as I have been concentrating on the time trial. I think that I have got a couple of pretty good results in the time trial so far. Like I said, I am not at my best yet as I haven't raced much, but I have had some good results there. So I think that is a good sign.
CN: You had two top 10 results in the Tour de France in the past. Last year, you got the hunger knock on Plateau de Beille, but still ended the race ninth in Paris. What do you think is possible from you in the future?
LL: For sure I know I can be top five. It is going to take a lot of hard work and a lot of planning. When I say planning, I mean that I can't be bonking any more on stages. That seems like a stupid mistake, but when you are doing a seven hour mountain stage, it is actually very difficult to get in enough calories. That is the strategy I need to take care of and address, as well some other issues.
So I will work out that problem and improve my time trialling, losing a little more weight. I think that I haven't been at my best weight in a few years, and with all that put together, I can definitely be in the top five.
CN: I presume Gerolsteiner would be quite happy with that result?
LL: Yeah, for sure! And I would be happy with it, that's for certain.
CN: After the Tour de France, what are you looking at doing? Is the Vuelta on the cards?
LL: It depends on how the Tour goes. I think the Deutschland Tour actually looks pretty interesting and quite difficult. Maybe I will be so tired that it will be too much, but I am going to keep that in the back of my mind.
CN: Is the world championship too late for you?
LL: It is too late and also the course doesn't really suit me. I mean, the time trial does but not the road race. Anyway, like I said, we will go and do the Tour first. You can't really plan for afterwards, so we'll have to take it as it comes for now.
CN: Winding up, how have you found the ProTour? Has it is transformed racing?
LL: That is a good question. I think it has, a little bit. I think the ProTour races are a bit more competitive than they were in the past. I wasn't at Paris-Nice but everybody said that it was extremely hard. You know, it is always hard, but now you have a bigger field in these races such as Pays Basque. Now there is almost 200 riders in that field and I noticed that it was more competitive than it was in the past.
I don't know if it raised the level, but there are a lot more riders that are there. Before you had a front group of 20, now you have a front group of 30, for example.
CN: What is your feeling, and the feeling within the team about the possibility of the ProTour teams boycotting the Giro, due to the current issues relating to the three Grand Tour organisers and their ProTour stand-off with the UCI?
LL: I don't know much about the situation, I actually only heard about it yesterday. But my reaction is... Well, initially, I have to say that I thought it was a good thing when I heard it, that the teams need a bit more support from these races. Then again, I don't know the whole story. I don't know the budget the races are operating with, what their situation is. So, to be fair, I really can't comment. But hopefully it will all be sorted out.