An interview with Levi Leipheimer (part two), December 25, 2007
...continued from part one.
In a general sense, racing has been good for Leipheimer, with many marquee wins and high placings on his palmares. The Tour, however, did not start so well for him and has been a love-hate relationship for him – with strong overall finishes in 2002 and 2004, but crashing out in 2003. "I am pretty satisfied with what I have done so far," he said. "The one thing is, when I first went to the Tour in 2002 with Rabobank I had no idea what to expect – and here I was leading this Dutch team. It was all a little bit overwhelming! I did my best, I am very proud that I got eighth in my first Tour. But it was hard because a lot of people were very critical, especially the Dutch people and Dutch media. I just had to stay focused and do my thing."
"Looking back on it I am proud of myself for that, but I always wondered – after doing the race a few times – if I could ever win the race. It's hard! Lance and Ullrich, those guys were just so much better, and it was hard for me to really visualize that. I just tried to do my best and eek out a place every year. Until this year, when I was thirty-one seconds from winning. That is when I got to the point where I said, 'I can win the Tour!' That is obviously the one thing I want to do before I retire – win the Tour."
"Lance and Ullrich, those guys were just so much better, and it was hard for me to really visualize that." -Leipheimer on his first three years at the Tour de France.
Speaking of a love-hate relationship, the UCI is not exactly on his Christmas card list after what happened the day before the Tour last year. Levi's much-researched and refined time trial position, which he debuted at this year's Tour of California was deemed unsafe and against the UCI rules since his aerobars were not perpendicular to the ground. This news coincidentally came on July 4, the day before the Tour start.
"It wasn't what I wanted!" Leipheimer laughed. "In the end though, like the last time trial with the position we were in with me fighting for the podium, it's not like I am thinking about it during the time trial. 'Oh, if only my bars were higher!' I was just going as hard as I could. The frustrating thing is they don't give you a good reason why you have to have your bars flat."
"With the restrictions they seem to make up as they go along it's not worth it. The day before the Tour [of Missouri] when we went to get it checked out before the start the commissaries said we were fine. It was so stupid, it was the same position I had in the Tour. The rule is what it is, but certain commissaries feel like it is a bad thing to have your hands up. Personally I think they don't like the way it looks. It's the only thing I can think of!"
Stepping back a little farther, as for how he got to where he is professionally, Leipheimer said he has no regrets and would do it the same, including with the teams for whom he has ridden. "Going to Rabobank and Gerolsteiner, I wouldn't trade that. At the time, that was my opportunity and I learned a lot. It made me stronger and smarter in the end. Later in my career, when I look back at the teams I've raced for and the countries I've raced in, it's priceless. I don't have any regrets about teams I went to or races that I chose to focus on."
Oh captain, my captain!
Not only is Leipheimer one of America's top riders, he is Captain America for most of next season – wearing the stars and stripes as the national champion. He did get a small preview of what it is like at the Tour of Missouri – but since it was the team's last race... ever, he was given a replica version, since the one worn previously by 6'3", 175 pound teammate George Hincapie did not quite fit his 5'7", 140 pound frame.
"It was kind of baggy so I had to wear the replica," he said. "It's hard to say how it feels in a race, because I only got to wear it at Missouri. But even training around here, it's cool to zip it up in the morning and see that jersey. And you are reminded every time I look down at my bike, 'Yeah, that's right – national champion!' I'll never get used to it, that is for sure."
Of course wearing the jersey and riding the bike of the national champion is inspiring, but having it next year will be an extra bonus. When asked what he would think of having to wear the Astana teal and yellow kits, Leipheimer smiled and said, "I'm really proud to wear the stars and stripes – but next year, a little more now! It never goes out of style."
Fittingly, Leipheimer will begin his racing season wearing the U.S. jersey while defending his "home" race – the Tour of California, which will begin with a new flat prologue in Palo Alto, down the road from his Santa Rosa home. "Tactically [the race] is the same, but the new prologue will have less of an effect. You can't win or lose the race in the prologue. Obviously the third stage is the most important – you could definitely lose the race there. But the time trial is still probably the most important stage."
Following California, Leipheimer's season will follow a similar schedule as last year – helping teammates while building his form for the Tour. "Last year I did Paris-Nice and Leon – I was there to help Alberto and really just to keep racing, killing time for myself. It's a chance for me to help the team and who wants to win. Then there is Georgia – it's a great race and I'll be back again for it."
Racing in the US is bonus for any American that spends most of the season away from home in Europe. But it is not looked at as a vacation for Leipheimer, as the quality of races and racing is looking up in his mind since the first years of California and Georgia. "It's been a sort of Discovery, CSC race, but that is still great because it's a chance for domestic riders to make a breakthrough. It's a huge opportunity. I think they realize it – they need to realize it because it's a great peloton, with Bettini last year and Jens Voigt... now with Boonen coming, it's great for US cycling."
Leipheimer is particularly happy to see Boonen making the trip this year. "I've told him for a couple of years now, you have to come to California!"
The indication that the racing in the US is rising is a double-edged sword, according to Leipheimer. "It's positive because the level in the US is rising. But unfortunately it seems that some foreigners are taking the spots – that means the US is a destination now. Look at all the races and the teams that are here. Pretty soon we could have our own circuit that could rival Europe."
Leipheimer is not quite in the same boat as the Tour of California promoters, who said they want it to be as big as the Tour de France, but agreed there is potential for American races to have a prominent place at the upper levels of racing. "The Tour is the Tour. As much as the ASO is a pain to deal with, as far as the whole state of affairs in cycling – I'm not saying the UCI is any better – but you can't replace the Tour de France, with the history, the attention and the backing. A lot of money can't replace it. But that isn't saying you can't have a lot of great races over here that could replace events over there. I'd rather do Tour of California over just about any one week stage race in Europe."
Two goals: Le Tour and Beijing 2008
Leipheimer said that like last year, all his goals are obvious and known going into the season – despite last year's potential distractions. "I don't think this year was anything unknown. There was the whole Basso thing, but for me I was always focused. Sure it was distracting to have that going on. I had to keep telling myself that I was going to do the best I could, targeting the Tour of California and do my best at the Tour de France, no matter what."
As he said, the only difference entering the Tour is that he and Contador, along with the whole Astana team, will be favourites. Tactically, he sees himself taking a similar approach. "There are less kilometers in the time trials – the first one is short, like 30km on the fourth stage. And then last one is the typical long one. But the Tour is always hard. The course matters but the strongest guy is going to win. You have to be able to climb, you have to be able to time trial in every Tour. You can play it a little differently... if the race stacked more towards the end, then you want to let yourself improve as the race goes on. Or you need to come in at your best. That sort of thing does change."
Following the Tour, Levi will be preparing for another major career goal – an Olympic gold medal (or two). "It's more because this one makes sense," he said. "When I heard the courses were hard and hilly, I knew it would suit me! And the time of it is great, right after the Tour. There is enough time to rest and recover, and you don't need to do any special training, because you are coming off the Tour and if all goes well you will be strong."
"I wish it were a few months later so I could talk about it," Leipheimer said in response to what his life plans are after racing. "I am definitely working on it and am really excited about something I am working on. I love to ride my bike, I love this area and I definitely have plans to work that in to the rest of my life."
But he is not in a hurry to hang up the wheels. "I signed for two years, so I for sure have two more of racing. I'll take those two years and see what happens. I know [retirement] is going to be staring me in the face when it happens. It will be obvious that I am over it, and I'm just not over it. I love training, especially. There is nothing better than going out and making myself tired on the bike. And then get to do great races like the Tour of California and the Tour de France."