By Hedwig Kröner in Avignon
American Levi Leipheimer made a strong statement about his current form on Sunday afternoon by winning the prologue of the Dauphiné Libéré in Avignon, Provence. The Astana rider got the better of short-distance specialist Thor Hushovd on the 5.6-kilometre parcours and will be wearing the overall leader's jersey on stage one on Monday.
Even before tackling the course, Leipheimer felt confident about his abilities, one week after helping team-mate Alberto Contador to victory in the Giro d'Italia. "I'm surprised, I feel okay – a little tired, but I recovered better than I thought," the winner of the 2006 Dauphiné told Cyclingnews in Le Pontet on the outskirts of the Papal city of Avignon.
"The Giro was hard. I never did it before, but every day was important and it always a bit stressful. Then, we had a lot of transfers and bad weather," the 34 year-old explained. But he was sure that the three weeks of Grand Tour racing had some effect on his fitness.
"I think my form is better than when I went into the Giro," Leipheimer continued. "I hadn't really raced much before that, so more than anything it was training for me."
Now, Leipheimer counts amongst the favourites for the overall victory, a feat he already achieved two years ago. "I love the Dauphiné, I've always really liked it ever since the first time I did it in 2003," he said. "In 2005, I came close to winning – I should have won – but because of a stupid mistake made by myself and my team, we lost the race. We were a bit overwhelmed, we tried to get clever, but ended up losing everything. The next year, I really wanted to win, I came back and I finally did it. I'd love to do well again this year."
Although Leipheimer leads the general classification after the prologue, he is only a few seconds away from other contenders such as Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne) and Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) and knows a hard week-long race has only just begun. "We'll have to wait a couple of days, ride into the race and watch the other riders – but it'll be clear who's the strongest. That's one of the great things about this race: you can be sure that the strongest rider wins," he added.
Asked who he thought would be his toughest opponents, the American replied: "The usual suspects: Cadel, Valverde... and Gesink from Rabobank will be strong. He's a big talent, and he will improve with age. The time trial is his weak point at the moment, but he's got a lot of time to figure it out."
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