Tour of California feature, February 23, 2009
After wrapping up his third win in a row in the Tour of California, American Levi Leipheimer seemed to be giving a press conference about the biggest victory of his career. It certainly may not have been his most prestigious win, but the rider and the race have grown in prominence and popularity over the past four years, and the importance of this year's Tour of California cannot be underestimated.
His two previous wins in California came with increasing fanfare, but with the return of one Lance Armstrong to the peloton, the attention surrounding the race grew to a fevered pitch, making Leipheimer's triple title headline news. Leipheimer, a California resident, was hard pressed to put the sensation of this year's win into words.
"I've been trying in my head to think about how to articulate and convey the feelings I've got. It's tough. To win it once, that was huge. To win it twice, it was a little bit of a surprise and felt like I was a little lucky. Now I've won it three times - it's the sweetest of the three and it's hard to describe that."
Leipheimer described how difficult a task it is to keep a streak like that going, and marveled at Armstrong's seven Tour de France titles. "I don't know how the hell he won the Tour seven times. It's unbelievable. I have a lot of respect for that."
In 2001, when Leipheimer rode into third place overall at the Tour of Spain, he had been riding in support of his then-US Postal teammate Roberto Heras (coincidentally under the direction of Astana team manager Johan Bruyneel). When Heras cracked in the final time trial, Leipheimer ascended to the podium with a fine second place on the stage.
The next year, he went in search of a team where he could be a sole leader for the general classification, and signed a contract with Rabobank. After two seasons with the Dutch squad and little to show for it aside from an eighth place overall in the Tour de France, he left for Gerolsteiner, with whom he won the Tour of Germany in 2005 and the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré in 2006.
Leipheimer rode his first Tour of California with the German team and he finished in sixth place. Since that time, he's evolved into the kind of rider who can support a leader like Alberto Contador in the Tour de France while at the same time taking a podium place, as he did in 2007. He's no longer just a domestique, but a co-leader who is there to take charge should the team's other leaders falter.
"It's been a long, hard learning process - of being the best that I can be and becoming a team leader. And when the Tour of California came along, the time was there - I had evolved into the kind of rider who can win this race. I was very motivated for it, and this year was awesome because the team was so strong."
A good prologue as a base for victory
Leipheimer started the Tour of California off with an affirming second place to Fabian Cancellara in the prologue, lagging by just over one second in the short, intense time trial. The yellow jersey inched away from his grasp when, on stage one, foul weather, poor communication, and a valiant solo breakaway by Spaniard Francesco Mancebo conspired to leave his Astana squad a mere 15 kilometres to close down a five-minute gap when the judges decided to neutralise the GC results at the start of the circuits in Leipheimer's home town of Santa Rosa.
Quick thinking by his teammate Chris Horner averted disaster, and Leipheimer sat just over a minute from stealing the leader's jersey. On stage two to Santa Cruz, he would do just that. After launching a courageous attack on the day's final climb, Leipheimer rode away with Garmin's Tom Peterson to gain enough time to don the yellow jersey which he would never relinquish.
"I've dreamt many days on the bike when I was pushing myself and suffering alone, I dream about moments like I had on Bonny Doon [the final climb] where it's a long way from the finish, the conditions are horrendous, and you just spur of the moment feel inspired and feel great, and you go for it.
"You know you're fully committed and there's no looking back. And you pull it off and grab the yellow jersey, and to have the team to back you up - with a guy like Lance Armstrong - it's a life-long dream for me."
Armstrong clarified that he was in California to ride for Leipheimer. "Nobody came in here with any expectation other than we're going to ride for Levi," he said, explaining that he thought it was "kind of cool" to pull domestique duties after years of "sitting on people's wheels and then taking all the glory.
"I was excited. There was no doubt in my mind that he was going to do what he did on Bonny Doon, and there was no doubt in our minds that he was going to do what he did in Solvang," Armstrong said.
The Astana team sent a beefed up squad to support Leipheimer in his quest, and Bruyneel spoke with great respect for the American after he delivered on his expectations. "He has certain goals in the season and this was one of them. He's the kind of guy that when he really knows he is in a position to lead, everyone on the team really trusts that he is going to be ready.
"A leader has to show to the team he is ready because the guys have had to suffer for him and they needed to know he will deliver. When Levi has to be there, he always delivers. To do this three times in a row is not easy and there was a lot of pressure on him, and he may be even in better shape than ever, but it was still hard, it was one of the hardest victories ever."
The pressure is on
Leipheimer agreed that the pressure was on him, and one of the most critical days after he took the lead was the 24 kilometre time trial in Solvang.
"A lot depended on one half hour in Solvang. [It's like that] every year. You have to give a lot for one half hour, and you have to have a great team, and I did - I had the best team in the race, there's no question about it."
The return of Armstrong as well as the growth of the race over the years attracted perhaps the strongest field ever assembled in the USA, and the expectations, the pressure and the crowds followed.
Leipheimer remarked on the estimate that the race had drawn a total of two million spectators over the week. Most people felt that number was an understatement, including the race winner.
"I'm surprised, it felt like more than two million today just today! The Rose Bowl yesterday, it was like Woodstock - it was bigger than Woodstock! It was unbelievable. It was what, a 7km circuit? And it was a tunnel of noise the whole way around. If Johan was talking, forget it, you couldn't hear anything.
"In Santa Rosa, the conditions were horrendous, and I felt kind of bad because maybe the turnout wasn't going to be that great, but we got there to see thousands of people out there suffering in the rain with us, cheering us on.
"At that point, you can't let them down. It's just this awesome environment because the riders see that, and they put on a better race. The race is more aggressive, and everyone comes with their A-game. The crowds really motivate us."
From leader to domestique
Now that he's achieved this goal, Leipheimer is looking toward the rest of the season, where he may not be the sole leader of the team, but will certainly play a part in its plan to secure more major victories.
"There's a different role for me in the future. There are certainly more opportunities for myself, but we have such a strong team, and I've got to pay these guys back for the help they did.
"Alberto [Contador] is very strong and we're coming up on Paris-Nice; he's won it before, so I'll be working for him. And then Lance in the Giro and then when we get to July we are going to have the best team there and ride for the strongest rider. Whether it's Lance or Alberto or whoever.
"This certainly was my race and it is always a goal of mine, but from now on we all have to wait and see."
Leipheimer, the rest of the Tour of California peloton, and the fans in the state were all treated to an experience in this year's race which came as close to that of a Grand Tour as the US has ever seen. Perhaps no point in the race embodied this scenario more than the highest point of the race atop Mt. Palomar, where thousands of fans closed in on the peloton, forming a scene of mayhem which greatly resembled that of a certain other famous climb, L'Alpe d'Huez.
"With the speed we went up, and with the riders we were surrounded by - especially the last two kilometres, I had to remind myself it was February in California, because I felt like it was the Alps in July."
A memorable season: Part one and part two
Vuelta a España: GC favorite or right hand man?
Giro d'Ialia: Modest Leipheimer forms part of dangerous Astana trio
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