By Kirsten Robbins in Sacramento, California
Fifteen-time Tour de France participant Viatcheslav Ekimov considers Lance Armstrong a valuable asset to Levi Leipheimer's quest to win a third consecutive Tour of California this week.
"We definitely want to win this race with our defending champion Levi Leipheimer," Ekimov said to Cyclingnews regarding the strong team Astana assembled for the USA stage race.
"Lance Armstrong is the guy who will help to win the race. We don't know what's his condition yet because it's only his second race of the season. For sure, he is an intelligent rider and he won't do things that are too difficult to early."
Leipheimer acknowledged the efforts of Astana and, in particular, the domestique work that Armstrong performed in the first two road stages.
"He's driven, he wants to win and he raises the level amongst the team and we are all that much more committed," Leipheimer said. "To have someone like him pulling in the wind for me at the end – there's no backing down, there's no excuses – I have to come through."
Leipheimer took over the leading position after stage two's 186-kilometre run from Sausalito to Santa Cruz. Furthermore, four of his teammates occupy the top eight places in the overall classification. Armstrong is fourth place at 30 seconds down.
"I think having Lance Armstrong on the team is motivation in itself, just by racing with him," said Ekimov, who played an important role in Armstrong's Tour de France victories. "He has a personality to help build the team spirit. Lance is going to act as the directeur on the road because we can't always follow the race from the car. He is a very smart guy and very quick with reactions and making decisions when options present themselves."
According to Ekimov, the experience that Armstrong has from winning seven consecutive Tours de France will come in handy to assist Leipheimer in winning a third Tour of California. He thinks the overall victory will be decided in the stage six time trial held in Solvang on February 20.