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The good lieutenant: A conversation with Levi Leipheimer

By Andrew Hood

Leipheimer is here to ride for his team.

Leipheimer is here to ride for his team.

Photo: Graham Watson

Levi Leipheimer (Astana) enters Saturday’s showdown in the Angliru in perfect position.

Teammate Alberto Contador has an entire nation – not to mention the whole Vuelta peloton – watching his every move.

Poised in second place at 11 seconds back, the veteran American can bide his time and watch the fireworks before making his move.

Back to the Vuelta for just the second time since his breakthrough third place in 2001, Leipheimer is in prime position to make a run for his third career grand tour podium and perhaps even more.

In a revealing interview, Leipheimer talks about Contador, his 2001 Vuelta podium, why the team let his leader’s jersey ride away and the return of Lance Armstrong. VeloNews European correspondent Andrew Hood caught up with Leipheimer after his rest day training ride on Friday. Here are excepts from the interview:

Re: Armstrong’s comeback

VeloNews: What do you make of the news of Armstrong’s return?

Levi Leipheimer: It’s hard to believe. I heard something a few weeks ago about it, but I thought it was just someone starting up a rumor. When it came out, it was hard to believe. It was a big surprise. It’s going to make this huge story for cycling and it brings some positive news after all that’s been going on.

VN: Do you believe he’ll ride with Astana?

LL: It’s hard to imagine that he would go anywhere else, with his history with Trek, Johan and the other sponsors.

VN: Do you think Armstrong can win the Tour again?

LL: This is a guy who won the Tour seven times, so you definitely cannot say no. Who am I to say yes or no? I agree with him that age it doesn’t necessarily mean anything negative. On a personal level, I have felt that I’ve lost anything as I get older. In fact, I feel more experienced, stronger and sharper as I get older. I have to agree with him that age isn’t a factor. It’s another thing after taking off three, almost four years from racing.

VN: If he comes to Astana, how would that affect you and Contador?

LL: We haven’t even talked about that yet. It’s all a big surprise and we’re right in the middle of the Vuelta. We’re just focusing on the race. We’ve got second and third places right now and we’re the big favorites to win. We’re in a very commanding position and we want to stay strong. We’re staying away from that right now.

VN: What a team Astana will have if Armstrong’s back!

LL: We will have four guys who’ve either won or been on the podium, but that’s a long way off. I don’t want to lose focus on the race. I was just as shocked as anyone by his comeback.

On 2001 Vuelta podium

VN: You became the first American to finish on the Vuelta podium in 2001, what does coming back to the Vuelta mean to you now?

LL: I raced the Vuelta again in 2003, after I broke my hip in the Tour, but I wasn’t in the best of condition. The Vuelta is better suited for me than the Giro is. I have a lot of memories from 2001. Even yesterday with about 15km to go, we passed a road and it hit me that we did a time trial there in 2001. Things like that bring me back to that event seven years ago. Also, yesterday was September 11 and I will never forget that. The stage that day came into Gijón and we heard on the radio what had happened. We went onto the team bus to see the images for the first time. I remember the next day the stage went to Covadonga. It does bring back a lot of memories.

VN: The Vuelta is a race that’s treated you well, a podium in 2001 and now stage win and the leader’s jersey in 2008?

LL: I love the Vuelta. When you have good legs, the Vuelta is an enjoyable race. It’s safe here. The roads are good, the transfers are easier, the hotels and food are better, there are not overly long stages. It’s a well-run race. I wish there were more like this.

VN: That Vuelta podium in 2001 really catapulted your career, how do you reflect on that now?

LL: It was really the start of my career. It’s been a long road since then. I wouldn’t call it a full circle to come back here, but at some point I knew I would race the Vuelta again. I came from U.S. Postal Service, doing all the B-squad races that, looking back, never really suited me well. Then working my way up, working in the trenches and then I got a shot at the Vuelta. To get third, that really launched me into my career. It put me in the role as team leader at Rabobank, Gerolsteiner, Discovery Channel and now Astana.

On Valverde losing time

VN: Thursday was an amazing stage and Valverde lost a lot of time, how was that stage for you?

LL: Yesterday was just survival mode. In a big race like the Vuelta, you need to stay on your toes. Anything can happen, just like we saw with Valverde. It was on a wet descent, cold and the peloton was all strung out. One team starts to pull and the bunch splits. Quick Step started to ride faster; there was still a chase going on with the breakaway up the road. The speed picked up. When we came off that descent there was kind of a whiplash. I was among the first 20 to 30 riders, and even that close, you still had to press hard.

VN: Astana and Euskaltel worked to eliminate Valverde, how important is that?

LL: That’s bike racing. Last week, Caisse d’Epargne tried to pull back that breakaway to keep us in the leader’s jersey to keep the pressure on us. They came up 11 seconds short. I’m sure (Valverde) will go on some rampage, but it will be hard to make up the three and a half minutes he lost.

VN: How do you like racing in the wet and cold?

LL: I get pretty cold, so I know that and make sure to put on more clothes than most. You just have to do your best to get through it. It’s not my favorite weather, but we’re all in the same boat. Knowing that, it’s about getting the right mindset and do what works.

VN: So what have you done so far on the rest day?

LL: We rode about one and a half hours, had lunch and now just resting. It’s been raining on and off. They say there’s going to be no rain at the Angliru. I hope that’s true.

Giving up the jerseyVN: How did you feel about the team’s decision to let your leader’s jersey ride away in stage 9?

LL: It really saved the team. Instead of working all those stages to protect the jersey, we had the power yesterday to take advantage of the situation. If we had the jersey, I don’t know if we would have had the legs to force a gap. It’s a three-week race. You have to ride tactically the entire time.

VN: Would you have liked to have that jersey more days or was it enough for you that you had already worn it on two different occasions?

LL: It’s always nice to have the jersey, but you have to do what’s right for the team. We’re here to win the Vuelta. Alberto is the big favorite for victory. I’m riding well, too, so we it have set up pretty well. You have to look at the big picture. Sometimes you have to make sacrifices for the team.

Up the Angliru

VN: So how are you feeling going into two decisive summit finishes?

LL: I feel great. I was a little bit tired after the Pyrenees. It’s a good moment to have a rest day. Tomorrow is the biggest stage of the Vuelta, so it’s nice to have some recovery before a stage like the Angliru.

VN: Looking to the Angliru, Egoi Martínez isn’t expected to keep his jersey, so either you or Contador could ride into the jersey?

LL: Egoi will get his chance to defend the jersey as best he can. Whether or not he has a realistic chance is hard to say. As far as trying to win the stage, that’s not as important as the overall. If there’s a breakaway and we’re missing the stage victory but move ahead in the GC, it’s no big deal. The team is just focused on protecting Alberto and getting him to the bottom of the Angliru in good order. Once we’re on the Angliru, it will be every man for himself.

VN: What will you be riding up the Angliru? Does it compare at all to the Plan de Corones time trial course at the Giro?

LL: We’re probably riding a 34×28 or maybe a 36×28. I’ve never ridden the Angliru. That last kilometer on Corones was probably the steepest of anything around and it wasn’t paved. That was just the last kilometer. The Angliru is steeper for a lot longer.

VN: So things are stacking up nicely for you and Alberto ahead of Saturday?

LL: It looks good. We’ve proved we’re the strongest team out there. We’ve made some good decisions along the way. It’s better to have two guys who can win than one.

VN: Contador looks like the strongest climber, but in his attacks so far, he’s only been able to take a few seconds, how do you read it?

LL: The two climbs in the Pyrenees weren’t super steep. Also, we had planned all along to conserve our strength as long as possible to be ready for the Angliru and for Sunday’s stage. It’s very possible that Alberto could put the Vuelta away tomorrow.

VN: Some say the Angliru is so steep that there won’t be that many differences between the top climbers, do you agree with that?

LL: There’s a point to that, assuming that you are as strong and as good as the best guys. You can’t jump away like you can on a flatter climb. It’s the physics of the climb, the steepness does tend to regulate it into one speed. Personally, I don’t mind that. But there’s no doubt, Alberto is going uphill the fastest of anyone in this Vuelta right now.

VN: Who do you fear most on the Angliru?

LL: There are only two or three guys who can attack and maybe there’s only one who can keep it going. A lot of guys will attack early and they’ll just do it for the TV, then they will be out the back. Anyone can make an acceleration, but we’re talking about a 12km climb, with 6km of it on extremely steep pitches. That’s going to take a lot longer than most people think.

VN: Carlos Sastre says the Vuelta will be decided on the climbing time trial on Stage 20 what do you think?

LL: We’ll see, but I think the biggest gaps of all the Vuelta will come on that stage. It’s not all uphill. The first 10km are up gradual, rolling roads to get to the base of the real climb. I know that climb pretty well. I’ve been up it quite a few times.

VN: Even by working for Contador, a podium is still a goal for you?

LL: For me, it’s simple. Alberto is the big favorite. Everyone’s watching him and waiting. Everyone knows he’ll be on the attack. They have to follow him and I will just try to follow them. It may not be the most exciting tactic, but it gets the job done.

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