By Gregor Brown in Locarno, Switzerland
Team Astana had not planned on racing the three-week Giro d'Italia and was invited to race with less than a week's notice. However, the team has made the race much more exciting by providing foreign contenders including American Levi Leipheimer, Germany's Andreas Klöden and Spain's Alberto Contador, who is leading the race with four days remaining.
Leipheimer, third in the Tour de France behind Contador, was in contention for the overall win, but changed to a supporting role along with Klöden as the Italian Dolomites sorted out the team's leadership. Speaking Wednesday morning, before stage 14's run to Locarno, he indicated that he was thrilled with Contador's performance and the possibility of the team winning the race's maglia rosa for the general classification.
"Once Alberto took the jersey, it was pretty obvious that I was not good enough to do anything. I took it easy on Plan de Corones, I just rode tempo," the 34 year-old Leipheimer explained to Cyclingnews as he stood on Via Moro.
"I think it would be amazing if we could win this race and under the circumstance of this year. I can't think of anything better. I think it is unbelievable what Alberto has done." Contador currently leads the race by 41 seconds over Riccardo Riccò (Saunier Duval-Scott) thanks to an amazing time trial run to Urbino and a strong defence in the Dolomite stages.
"We did not know that we were even coming to this race and, now, here he is leading this race," the Californian said. The team, not originally invited to the Giro d'Italia or the Tour de France, was planning on racing the only other Grand Tour of the year, the Vuelta a España. However, race organiser RCS Sport granted Team Astana permission a the last moment.
Under the name of Discovery Channel, the team took two steps of the 2007 Tour de France's podium, but it did not have to defend for such a long amount of time. "Last year, in the Tour was obviously very special. We didn't really have to defend the lead very much because it was it was right at the end.
"I think we have more work cut out for us over the weekend this time around. We are very confident with Alberto, the team is definitely going to give it everything 110 percent, so to speak."
Leipheimer indicated, he is looking forward to the two "transitional stages" on Wednesday and Thursday after the Giro's second rest day. "Yesterday, it was not really much of an off day, but for the legs it was a little bit easier. The next two days are going to be intense but at least they are very short." He finished with the gruppo on Wednesday and faces the second of two stages on Thursday, 147 kilometres to Varese.
Contador will call on Leipheimer to defend the race lead through the last two mountain days, Monte Pora on Friday and Triano on Saturday. "No attacking. He has the lead, and he just has to stay with the leaders and conserve the lead. That is what it is all about."
The final day, a 28.5-kilometre time trial to Milano, could suit Leipheimer, but he prefers to focus on Contador's overall win first. "I have to think about Friday and Saturday first and after concentring on that... the most important thing is winning the race."
Leipheimer will race the Dauphiné Libéré in June and relax in July.