By Gregor Brown in Angoulême
Levi Leipheimer achieved his first-ever stage win in the Tour de France by hammering his way over the mainly flat parcours of the 55.5-kilometres between Cognac and Angoulême. It was something that the 33 year-old had always dreamed of and a win that came in his tenth year as a professional. Cyclingnews' Gregor Brown was in Angoulême to hear the American's reaction.
"I did not know during the warm up that I would be so good," explained a relaxed looking Leipheimer. Good was an understatement after he nailed his competition, sending the former fastest rider of the day, Vladimir Karpets (Caisse d'Epargne), packing with a time 1'56" better than the Russian. "Dirk [Demol] was giving me time checks from George Hincapie who had set the best time. I kept shifting down to the big gear; you feel it. It was a special day and I had the best day of my life."
Tensions built as the sun moved lower on the Charente horizon and Leipheimer pounded his way closer and closer to taking the race overall. No one had given the Discovery Channel rider much of a chance of stealing the maillot jaune, instead the pundits were focused on the battle between Contador and Evans. Yet after his performance on Saturday, Leipheimer moved to within 31 seconds of race leader Contador and eight seconds of Evans in the overall classification.
"I did not think I had a chance to win the Tour today, to be honest." The American's chances would have been even closer had he not received a ten second penalty earlier in the Tour - a gap now is keeping him from second overall. "Johan had asked the commissar about the penalty. I don't know if you can appeal or not. The commissar stood behind his decision and we have to accept that. If it were for the overall win it would have been more heartbreaking.
"We won this Tour [with Alberto Contador], barring any accident. I don't think I am going to pull off a massive sprint tomorrow, he [Cadel Evans] is a better sprinter than me anyway."
The win gave Leipheimer that coveted Tour stage that he always dreamed of, adding to Discovery's previous stage win on Plateau de Beille and the imminent overall win with Contador. "I am extremely happy to win the stage; it has been a life long dream. It has been a life long dream to ride the Tour! To stand on the podium tomorrow I imagine that it will be fantastic. I will be very happy for Alberto tomorrow, too.
"I finished and I was watching in the camper, yelling at the TV until Alberto crossed the line. I was just as happy for his GC win as I was for my stage win today."
The team had a special guest to help it prepare for the stage. Seven-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong arrived and followed in the team car of Johan Bruyneel.
"Normally he is very calm and collected," said Leipheimer of the Texan who appeared nervous in Cognac. "He was watching us warm up and I think it brought back memories for him. Watching us prepare our gloves and clean our glasses. He was helping tape radios in ears and asking us if we needed anything. He was very much in the groove and it helped motivate us."