It's a case of "the more things change the more they stay the same" for Levi Leipheimer in 2010. The 36-year-old Leipheimer joins a new team and faces a Tour of California with a new calendar position and beefed-up parcours, but the three-time Tour of California winner draws comfort from the familiar faces on RadioShack and a steadfast confidence in his ability to deliver a victory for the fourth straight year in his home state.
One week before RadioShack's first training camp Levi Leipheimer spoke to Cyclingnews' Daniel Benson about the focal points of his 2010 schedule, his relationship with a certain 7-time Tour de France winner and what keeps him freshly motivated entering his 13th year as a professional.
Cyclingnews: We'll start with the Tour of California, a race you've won for the last three years. The route was announced about a month ago. What are your thoughts on that race and the importance for next year?
Levi Leipheimer: Regardless of the route the Tour of California is always important for me, especially having won it three times in a row. It's become my race and I'm proud that I'll go there to win again in May.
CN: To win four times, what would that mean?
LL: In a way it's harder every year because you're more and more the favourite and to keep a string of victories going like that isn't easy. In other ways I have the confidence of winning three years in a row so that helps a lot, too. But everybody there starts to gang up on you a bit and that can really affect tactics and racing. It's really difficult on my team in the Tour of California as they have to do all the work. It puts a lot of responsibility on the team's shoulders.
CN: It's also like a new race in many ways, though, isn't it, what with the date change and the harder route?
LL: Yeah, it has that feeling. We're going to have good weather, new stage profiles and finishing on the top of Big Bear Mountain will be fantastic. It's the first time the race has ever had a mountain top finish. It's definitely like a new race. The date change could mean that the opposition is stronger but I don't know. We're going to have to wait and see but guys like Dave Zabriskie and Michael Rogers will be my main rivals again. It's going to be the same faces fighting it out for the overall.
CN: With the date change in mind and looking at the Tour de France, where does the Tour of California sit in importance for your schedule for 2010?
LL: It fits in really well. My favourite races are the Tour de France, Tour of California and the Dauphiné [Libéré] and they come right on top of each other in a three-month period. It makes sense for me to start off a little slower this year and use some races to get going and not come out swinging as I usually do in February. For the last few years, after I've won California it's been followed with a real mental relapse and I've really needed a break. Having that in February is really hard to take as it's the start of the season. This way I'll be aiming to keep momentum going straight into the Dauphiné and Tour [de France].
CN: So what is your programme for next year?
LL: I'll look to Spain when it comes to the first part of my season. [Volta Ciclista a] Catalunya has moved into March and looks appealing. There are other great races Valencia and Portugal's [Volta ao] Algarve. I'll most likely be picking from these races. Then it's full steam ahead going into the Tour of California, Dauphiné and the Tour. After that, well we'll just see where I am and what I've got left.
CN: Next week you'll join up with your new RadioShack teammates at their first training camp in Arizona. How easy was it to make the decision to move from Astana to RadioShack?
LL: There was no question. It wasn't even a decision. There were always other possibilities but RadioShack was my first choice. It's a team or a set-up that I've been part of since US Postal in 2000 - okay, it's gone through name changes and different colours but the core group and organisation is the same. I had offers from other parties for the next few days but staying with Astana was never an option. Out of respect I won't say who else threw their hat into the ring and made me an offer.
As for the camp, I'm really excited about it. I don't even know what our jersey will look like or the colour but I'm hoping they'll be great and that the fans will want to buy them. I can imagine they'll have a yellow band but the main colours will be black and red.
CN: Moving to RadioShack means you've taken the decision to race with Lance Armstrong again. What's the dynamic between you and the seven-time Tour de France winner?
LL: He's a strong character and a real leader of a team, but we get along fine and have never had any problems. I enjoy racing with him. He's shown to me that he can be a great teammate at the Giro [d'Italia] and at the Tour of California he helped me a lot. Of course he's seen that I can be a good teammate back. We work well together.
CN: What do you put your relationship with Armstrong down to? Many riders with aspirations of winning have been forced to fly the roost and ride for other teams - in fact you left US Postal in order to do that. Is it difficult being on a team with someone who has the same goals?
LL: That's a hard question to answer because cycling isn't that simple. But in the end the road decides and the strongest rider wins, so if I have the legs to win the Tour I want the best team and it's the same for Lance. If you are the strongest rider in the Tour and you're on a wildcard team that's scraped in you're probably not going to win the race because of that very fact. I just focus on being the best I can be and taking care of myself and if I'm the best then I'm going to have the team to win the race.
CN: Just to play devil's advocate, we saw this year that being the strongest rider didn't necessarily mean you had the total support of your team.
LL: I disagree. I was there and on the inside and from day one we knew Alberto Contador was the strongest rider, but that doesn't mean Lance, once he gets up the road with 40 riders and he's the only GC guy there, isn't going to try and open a gap. We're not hurting Alberto by doing that and it's not like the Schlecks were there. If they had been we wouldn't have worked. Certainly there was some tension in the team but he had our support.
CN: Can you envisage that kind of tension between you and anyone else on RadioShack in the future?
LL: I don't think so.
CN: Do you still think you can win the Tour de France?
LL: Yes, absolutely. I can win the Tour. I dream about that and when the day comes when I don't think I can win the race then maybe that's the time to stop and hang up my bike. You have to hope and dream and that's what gets me out the door and training. If I have a teammate who's stronger than me then I'll work for him. That's how the sport works. But if I'm the best rider I want the team there to support me. I know that at the Tour of California and the Dauphiné I'll have leadership for sure and at the Tour we have three guys: Lance who has won it, and Andreas and I who have been on the podium. You keep those guys in play for as long as possible.
So if I get in a group with 40 riders and I'm the only GC guy then we'll work on that gap. But the mountains and the time trials tell the truth and that's where you find out who is the strongest rider and the eventual winner.