One of the main contenders

After a stellar year that included an overall win in the Tour of Germany, third overall at the...

An interview with Levi Leipheimer, November 16, 2005

After a stellar year that included an overall win in the Tour of Germany, third overall at the Dauphine Libere and sixth overall at the Tour de France, Gerolsteiner's American team leader Levi Leipheimer can quite easily say it's been his best season ever. Relaxing at his home in Santa Rosa, CA, Leipheimer is enjoying the fruits of a great year, and as Cyclingnews' Les Clarke finds out, at 32 years old he's not even thinking about finishing yet.

Speaking with Leipheimer at his home in California, his voice has the tone of a man with not too many worries at the moment, least of all the security of his contract at a time of year when an axe is being wielded by the management of various teams. This is due to the fact that Leipheimer finished the season ranked seventh on the inaugural Pro Tour's final rankings, with top ten overall performances in the Tour de France, Dauphine Libere, Tour of Germany and on home turf at the Tour de Georgia.

By his own admission it's been his best year ever, saying, "Yeah, I'd say it was my best season. The races I entered I got good results in, and although some were used as preparation for other races, I did well in all the races I was really going for." One of Leipheimer's goals was to perform well in the Dauphine Libere, and although it's known as a Tour de France warmup race for most of the major contenders, Leipheimer's form in this shorter stage race bode well for his performance at la Grande Boucle.

As documented in his diaries on Cyclingnews, Leipheimer was constantly learning throughout the Tour, with his fair share of challenges and difficulties along the way. Going into the final stage, Leipheimer sat in fifth overall, just two seconds ahead of T-Mobile's Alexandre Vinokourov. The Kazakh rider, who'd been attacking on stages since the peloton rolled into France's high peaks, surged ahead of the pack over the Tour's final cobbled kilometre and took the stage win on the Champs Elysees, gathering enough time over Leipheimer to bump him back into sixth. "It was disappointing," says Leipheimer. "I thought it was going to come down to a bunch sprint, which would've worked fine, but it didn't."

There was a positive aspect to the finish, however; "The good thing to come out of it was the fact that I was really motivated to do well after the Tour - and that showed at the Tour of Germany," said Leipheimer. And does he think his preparation for the Tour could have been any better, so it didn't come down to a nervous final day? "No, I think the preparation was good. I rode well at the Dauphine..." And he carried that form into the Tour of Germany, which was a great result, especially as it was a home race for Gerolsteiner. He took a comfortable overall win against the likes of Jan Ullrich, Cadel Evans and Bobby Julich, with the team endeding the race with two men on the final podium - Georg Totschnig joined Leipheimer on the podium behind Ullrich.

At the end of the season, team management knew Leipheimer had scored them some great results, and the quietly-spoken American confirms this, saying, "They [Gerolsteiner] were really pleased with this year - I mean, they didn't really have expectations for this year as such, and it's the same for next year. Not too much pressure." Leipheimer finds the team different to Rabobank, where he spent three years following a two-year stint at US Postal, because they are more flexible with riders' schedules. "They're different. They allow me to choose most of the races I want to race, and take a break when I need it," believes Leipheimer.

"At Rabobank there was a little more pressure, and they expected you to ride more races because they're an older organisation with a lot of ex-pros that were used to doing things a particular way when they were racing. They bring that sort of mentality to the team - it's not like that at Gerolsteiner." For example, Rabobank may not have allowed Leipheimer to spend as much time back home in California as Gerolsteiner are allowing him to, with Leipheimer staying Stateside until March next year, save for a team meeting in December and training camp in January. He'll do the Tour of California in February before heading back to Germany for the start of his programme in March.

According to Leipheimer, his goals for 2006 reflect what he achieved in 2005, with an emphasis on consistency and being one of the top dogs come July in France. Leipheimer believes that without Armstrong "It'll be different and more open, but strong teams like T-Mobile and CSC will have to control it; I don't think it'll be the fireworks some people are predicting, however. I think there'll be five or six guys that can step up into a position to win, and I think I'm one of them." And is there anything he could improve for next year's Tour? "I don't think so..." he says, "There's not one thing that stands out to work on for next year, just a few smaller things. I'm happy with the way I time trialled in the Dauphine and the Tour; maybe my preparations for the Tour TT could have been a little better."

Having turned 32 in October, Leipheimer is still feeling up to the challenge of racing the world's biggest races, and isn't thinking about slowing down at all, citing his late start as a pro as the reason he's flourished later in his career. "I started late as a pro, and now I still feel fresh. I can't put any particular time on when I'll be ready to finish - when the time comes and I'm not enjoying it or it doesn't feel right, I'll stop riding." And if he continues to enjoy the results he's achieved throughout 2005, 'that loving feeling' looks set to continue for a lot longer.

In the meantime, however, Leipheimer will be a star attraction at the Tour of California in February, something he's excited about. "I think it'll suit me; after the launch last week I flew over the route in a helicopter. It's spectacular, with some great mountains, and it follows Highway 1 along the coast. I think the time trial in San Jose will be important, but it's not the kind of course somebody can just ride away on." Although he "initially had reservations about Amgen as the sponsor," Leipheimer looks at races such as the Tour of California and Tour de Georgia in April and believes American cycling is heading in the right direction, saying, "With races like this and the Tour de Georgia, American cycling is at an all-time high. I think in a few years this race [Tour of California] could apply for a Pro Tour licence, which would be great."

An example how far American cycling has come can be seen when Leipheimer was recently invited back to his home town of Butte, Montana, for Levi Leipheimer Appreciation Day, something that totally surprised him. "Growing up there, I was certainly one of the only cyclists in the area," he said. "So I didn't know that anyone knew what I was doing, or followed cycling." When he went back, however, there were thousands of people who turned out on bikes to welcome him, and a presentation to celebrate his achievements. If his 2006 is like 2005, then chances are more people back in Butte and the US in general will be following Levi Leipheimer's progress throughout Europe.

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