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Leipheimer GC favorite or right hand man?

By Shane Stokes

Levi Leipheimer is once again leading the Vuelta a España, returning to the maillot oro after two days in the high mountains. However the Astana rider is on the same team as Tour de France and Giro d'Italia winner Alberto Contador, a Spaniard is considered the number one rider on the squad.

Leipheimer has had an excellent start to the Vuelta a España, winning the stage five time trial, wearing the maillot oro for a stage and then returning to the race lead by the end of Sunday's stage eight after two days in the mountains. He will start the ninth stage from Viella to Sabiñánigo 21 seconds clear of Astana team-mate Alberto Contador, and 49 seconds ahead of Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne). Tour de France victor Carlos Sastre (Team CSC - Saxo Bank) is one minute 27 seconds back in fourth place.

Leipheimer finished third in the event seven years ago, stunning many with such a Grand Tour debut and showing that he was a bona fide contender for three-week races. Now, years later, he's back racing in Spain and shining in gold.

He first took the lead when winning the time trial, but the maillot oro passed to Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis) and then to Alessandro Ballan (Lampre). The American took it back with a strong performance on Sunday's eighth stage to Pla de Beret, and spoke about the previous wearers of the tunic.

"I think that Chavanel and Ballan both earned it," he said, playing down any talk of the team 'gifting' the jersey to them. "We didn't contest Chavanel, but realistically I can't beat him in the sprint. He would get the jersey, no matter what, but to make it easy we collaborated a little bit with him. It was good for us to save the team. On the other hand, Ballan was really very strong yesterday. They earned it."

The fact is, had Leipheimer followed his usual programme, it'd be highly unlikely that he'd be riding the Vuelta. He's targeted the Tour de France ever since that good Tour of Spain in 2001, finishing eighth, ninth, sixth, twelfth and third between 2002 and 2007.

Following that podium finish last July, the plan was to bank everything on this year's race, aiming to go even higher in the results. However the entire Astana team was refused entry by ASO and missed out on riding the race. As a result, the Vuelta – rather than the Tour – is his and the team's Grand Tour target for the second half of the season.

Leipheimer was consequently delighted to take the time trial stage plus the overall lead on Wednesday. "I've been feeling very strong for the last couple of weeks, since the Olympics [he was third in the time trial in Beijing]," he told journalists after the race against the clock.

"This is another big highlight for me and this team. It's always an honour to win a stage in a Grand Tour, plus wear the leader's jersey."

He was equally happy to get back the gold jersey on Sunday's mountain stage, and is clearly one of the strongest riders in the race.

Impressive form in 2008

Leipheimer has taken many important results this season, including first in the time trial and overall classification in the Tour of California, third in the Tour de Georgia, third plus a stage win in the Dauphiné Libéré, first in the Cascade classic and third in the Olympic time trial in Beijing.

Then, after coming back from China, he won the pre-Vuelta Clásica a los Puertos de Guadarrama, gaining an important psychological boost before the Spanish Tour. Whatever the outcome of the rest of the Vuelta, it's likely that his stage win and overall leader's jersey in the race will be one of the standout points of the season.

Two others will rank highly on his list, going by what he told Cyclingnews before the Tour of Spain started. "In terms of highlights…the Tour of California is always important for me, and then winning the Olympic medal was big," he stated. "Those two were definitely on top. They were two of my goals for the year, even before we heard the news about the Tour [ASO's refusal to grant a place to Astana]. Those moments are the ones that stand out for me."

Narrowing it down further, the Olympics was clearly a big, big moment in his career. "Obviously I dreamt about winning the time trial, but I have to say that I am really happy about getting a bronze," he said. "I think just getting an Olympic medal is something else – after the fact, it [the experience] is more than I had ever imagined it would be, really. It was a great experience to be able to stand on the podium, see the flags being raised, and then the next day to do the US media tour that most of the medallists get to do.

Read the complete interview.

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