Perhaps more than anyone beyond Schleck, Leipheimer has been the rider who’s come closest to derailing Contador over the past few seasons. At the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, Leipheimer took bronze ahead of Contador’s fourth in the time trial event. In 2007, Leipheimer came within 31 seconds of winning what was Contador’s first victory when he won the final stage and finished third overall (a time difference that included a 10-second time penalty that cost Leipheimer second place). The following year, when Astana was kept out of the Tour, Leipheimer rode to second place just 46 behind Contador in the Vuelta a Espana. Take away the time bonuses, and Contador would have only nipped Leipheimer by fractions of seconds based on the TT tie-breaker.
Of course, Contador would have raced every differently in that Vuelta if Leipheimer was a rival instead of a teammate, but the closeness of those results underscores that Leipheimer can stay within striking range of Contador at the end of a major race. And that’s just how Leipheimer looks at an event as multi-dimensional and complicated as the Tour.
“Cycling is a very complex sport. I still learn stuff all the time and I’ve been doing this most of my life. As you learn more about it, you can appreciate all different aspects and different racing styles. I could have attacked at the Tour de Suisse, on one of the final climbs, but it was super-windy and it wouldn’t have gone anywhere. It might have been an attack that could have weakened me a few days later. And Cunego was strongest on the climbs, so I knew I wasn’t going to gain time on him there,” he said. “Sometimes it depends on which side of the TV you’re on. I see a lot of supportive comments on Twitter and I appreciate that.”
Without a doubt, the wheel that Leipheimer will be measuring up against for the next three weeks will be Contador’s.
“That’s not news (that Contador is the favorite to win). I didn’t watch the entire Giro, but from what I heard and read about it is that Alberto won commandingly. He’s won the last six grand tours he’s started. The writing’s on the wall. He’s tough to beat,” Leipheimer said. “Are we going to go stay home and give it to him? Hell no. We’re going to devise the best strategy we can and wait for the opportunity to come to beat him. Of course he’s beatable. With Alberto, you have to lose as little as time as possible and try to take it back in the time trial. That’s the bad part for Andy Schleck, because Alberto is a better time trialist. (Contador’s) got this acceleration that’s just unmatched by anyone. He is much more lethal with his attacks. Sometimes he just goes for it without thinking about it or looking at the bigger picture, but he’s getting more calculating as he gets older.”