Levi Leipheimer is still hoping to compete in the 2013 Tour of California, despite uncertainty surrounding his team for the coming season. The American is currently serving a six-month ban after admitting to using performance enhancing drugs during the earlier part of his career. His suspension was reduced in exchange for his testimony regarding the doping programme on the US Postal Service team, which helped to implicate Lance Armstrong, Johan Bruyneel, Dr. Luis del Moral, trainer Jose "Pepe" Martí and Dr. Michele Ferrari.
Following his acceptance of the ban, Leipheimer was released from his Omega Pharma-Quickstep team, and is not yet able to discuss his team situation for the coming year or whether he will be able to race the Tour of California. "I'll be there to support the race in one way or another," he told Cyclingnews.
Despite being stripped of his competitive results from June 1, 1999 to July 30, 2006 and from the 2007 Tour de France, Leipheimer remains a three-time winner of the Tour of California (2007-2009), and because of his hugely popular Levi's Gran Fondo and other charity work in his Santa Rosa community, the 38-year-old has been a celebrated figure in the area and at the race.
However, the USADA case has polarized opinion about Leipheimer and the others whose testimony stripped the veil of secrecy off of cycling's doping past and toppled its biggest star, Armstrong. Some remain critical of the choices the riders made, to dope in order to have a successful career, while others admire them for having the courage to lay bare the truth. Whatever the opinions, Leipheimer wants to assure the fans that the Tour of California will be raced by clean athletes.
"There's a lot of material out there, a lot of documents in the Reasoned Decision. If someone took the time to read it all and understand what this is all about ... I think they can understand - I know this has been said a lot, and to some people it doesn't mean much in light of what's happened, but I just want to make sure that people know - that cycling is cleaner than ever right now.
"Certainly the younger generation hasn't had to face those decisions that were there 10-15 years ago. So when they come to watch the 2013 Tour of California, hey can rest assured it's going to be a clean race."
Leipheimer isn't sure how the public will react when the race comes through, but he has enjoyed the support of his family and friends as well as some fans. "I've had a lot of people reach out to me ... of course they don't condone what I did, and I don't condone what I did. But I told the truth and I think they can appreciate that. and they recognize that a lot of good can come out of that eventually."
Leipheimer will be eligible to race again on March 1, 2013, well in time for the Tour of California, which will depart from Escondido on May 12 for its first south-north route.
"I think south to north is cool, they haven't done that before. That's exciting," Leipheimer said, adding that the route could provide for another display of domination by Peter Sagan, who won five of the eight stages this year, withstanding numerous climbs and winning all but the mountain finish on Mt. Baldy, the time trial and barely missing out in the Big Bear stage to a solo breakaway by Sylvain Georges.
"Not knowing the exact details of the route, the GC will come down to Friday [a time trial] and Saturday [the mountain finish on Diablo], but there could be a surprise somewhere out there. Just from looking at the host cities, I see another race for Sagan, maybe one field sprint that caters to more of a pure field sprinter than him. Especially in the Tour of California, he can win any kind of sprint. I see the first four days being built for him.
"There won't be any decisive stages until you get to San Jose [on stage 6]. I think the first stage we'll go up Palomar in the middle of the stage so it's not decisive, but that and the stage into Palmdale and Santa Clarita will be hilly."
Leipheimer expects a return to a classic, flat time trial in San Jose, similar to 2006 when the 27.4km test headed south from Los Paseos toward Morgan Hill. But it is the following stage that Leipheimer thinks will be most exciting - the mountain top finish on Mt. Diablo.
"I do know roughly the route of the Saturday stage, it's going to be a big one, it's going to be a real climbing stage. Finishing on Diablo will be exciting. The area has a huge population and big cycling community. It's going to be a chance for people to line the roads and see a great bike race up an iconic mountain in the area. It's exciting. It's going to be a first for the Bay Area to see the queen stage and a real mountain top finish right there overlooking San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley - it's going to be cool."
Leipheimer's home base in Santa Rosa will host the race for the seventh time - it has been featured in every edition except 2011, but it is the first time the town will host the overall finish.
"For Santa Rosa and Sonoma county it's awesome. We've had the race almost every year. This year we started the race, next year we get to finish the race. It's exciting. People around here love the Tour of California, they come out and support it really well. It's another big year for Santa Rosa."
In the meanwhile, the cases of Bruyneel and Martí are still pending arbitration, so the saga over his doping admissions may not be over for Leipheimer. Until those are closed, he is not free to speak much about the case although he says all the facts are out. However, he says he can still be proud that he told the truth.
"I can definitely be proud of the fact that I told the truth, because I could have not told the truth and that's not acceptable. There's more to be said, but it seems too early. A lot of things need to happen, and a lot of time needs to pass for all of us to understand, myself included, and let time heal some things."
Laura Weislo has been with Cyclingnews since 2006 after making a switch from a career in science. As Deputy Editor, she coordinates coverage for North American events and global news. A swimmer in her younger days, Laura made the change to cycling later in life, but was immediately swept up by a huge passion for the sport. Riding for fitness quickly gave way to the competitive urge, and a decade of racing later she can look back on a number of high profile races and say with confidence, "I started". While her racing days are over for the most part, she continues to dabble in cyclo-cross and competing against fellow pathletes on the greenways of Raleigh, North Carolina.
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