Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) starts Saturday’s prologue at the Tour de Suisse with the Tour de France on his mind.
The defending champion is hoping a hard week of racing across a demanding course over the Swiss Alps is just what he needs to hone his fitness ahead of July’s Tour.
The 38-year-old Leipheimer is still recovering from a car/bike collision caused when a Spanish motorist struck him from behind in early April. After suffering a fractured left fibula in the crash, Leipheimer lines up in Lugano, Switzerland, without too much pressure to defend his 2011 title.
Leipheimer was able to return to racing for last month’s Amgen Tour of California, where he rode to sixth place overall, impressive considering what he had been through. Nearing full health again, Leipheimer told VeloNews that he’s more motivated than ever for the challenges that lie ahead:
VeloNews: You had a great start to 2012, with victory at the Tour de San Luis in January, but have since had some tough luck. How would you characterize your season so far?
Levi Leipheimer: I have had some trials and tribulations the last couple of years, but as I get older, I am getting used to it. I’ve learned I don’t need to get stressed out about stuff you cannot control anyway. But getting hit by a car and breaking a leg was a big deal! It took a lot of time to come back. It wasn’t the pain, but the strength in the leg isn’t there right now. The bone is healed and I am working on getting stronger and it’s been a difficult process. The leg atrophied and there is still some scar tissue around the fracture site. I have been getting deep massage to try to work that out, to get that moving again. It just takes awhile for everything to remodel itself.
VN: How close was it to you not being able to race California?
LL: It required a lot of work. I have been working as hard or harder than I ever had. There’s been a lot of physical therapy. Just to be able to get the leg in enough shape and to recover enough that I could go out and race was a big effort. That took a lot of time and work. Obviously, at Cali, I wasn’t great. In my mind, I decided that I could race about a week or 10 days from the start of the race. I knew that I was good enough to race and that I was not going to drop out or be a burden on the team. We wanted to wait until they got over there and everyone could see me, then we could announce it together.
VN: How important was it for you to race at California despite the injury?
LL: California is a great race, but racing for position in the peloton is not too difficult. The roads are big and the peloton is relatively small. It is not the super-dynamic racing like you see in Europe, when you have to accelerate and really step on the gas a lot. There are some hard climbs and the TT was hard. Big Bear and [Mount] Baldy were difficult climbs, but for the most part, it’s not really a stressful race. It was a good one to ride as the first one back, though that’s not to say that California is an easy race. It’s moving around the peloton that is a lot easier, much easier than, say, the [Critérium du] Dauphiné. It’s not like Paris-Nice or Tirreno-Adriatico, where the peloton is big and the roads are small, where you have to do these big efforts that would make it hard for me. Cali was a good one to start with in that regard.
VN: If you could put a number on it, what percentage is your injured leg right now compared to full strength?
LL: That’s a hard question to answer. In California, it was 80 percent. Now I am at altitude (in Utah) and I am suffering because of that. I would say closer to 90 percent, but that’s just guessing.
VN: What are your expectations for the Tour de Suisse?
LL: I am hoping what I can do is race Suisse without any pressure. I want to allow my leg and my body some more time to recover and hopefully it all works out for the Tour. I will be fresh, because I have had such a big break there when I normally would have been racing. I will hope to be coming back up to close to 100 percent by the time we get there for the Tour; that would be ideal. It’s best just to use the Tour de Suisse as training and help support the team and not put too much pressure on myself.
VN: You’ve won a lot of major races in Europe. Where does your 2011 Tour de Suisse victory rank?
LL: It’s a huge race. It’s almost considered a grand tour. They used to call it the fourth grand tour. It’s not 10 days anymore, but it has all the elements of a major race. It has a great history and some big names have won there. I’m proud to have added that to my palmarès.
VN: You’ve won races on both sides of the Atlantic and been on grand tour podiums. At this point of your career, are you satisfied or still hungry?
LL: The answer is both. I am very satisfied with my career and the races I’ve been able to win. It’s also been a long, hard road, with a lot of trials and tribulations, but that’s life. There are a lot of things that happen in everyone’s lives that make it a battle and make those victories even sweeter. Last year, winning the Tour de Suisse was a little unexpected. It came on the last day. It’s something that I will never forget. I think I can still achieve big results. That’s what I am trying to do. When the day comes when I know I cannot be competitive, that’s when it’s time to stop.
VN: On paper, the 2012 Tour seems ideal for your characteristics. What are your expectations?
LL: There are a lot of TT miles, but to win the Tour, you have to be able to climb. The climbs always make the biggest differences in the Tour. We all know what we have to do, the weight we have to be at. We all know we have to be our best. I know I can never accelerate up the climbs with Schleck or Contador, so I have to play my cards right and stay as close to guys like that and then hopefully get back some time in the time trial. The biggest favorite is Wiggins. He’s ridden flawlessly this season. He can climb fast and he’s one of the best time trialists out there. That’s going to be tough to beat him. He’s got it all down right now.
VN: And your chances?
Wiggins will be the No. 1 favorite. I am sure Cadel (Evans) will turn it on at the right moment. Those guys are at a level above me this year, especially with the injury. I am not the big favorite.
VN: Has it been frustrating with your injury coming just before the most important part of the season?
LL: It’s not ideal. It is what it is. You have to make the best of it, because it could have been a lot worse. I am just looking forward and doing my work and not worrying about it, because there is nothing I can do about it now. The only thing I can do is work as hard as I can and get there in the best possible shape.
VN: Things have gone very well at Omega Pharma-Quick Step this year, how is the team shaping up for the Tour?
LL: We have Peter Velits and myself for the GC. We really have a great team for the first week. It’s so important to stay out of trouble and avoid crashes and get to the mountains as rested as possible. That’s what this team is all about. The first week is always classics-style racing so that’s great for this team. Like in Paris-Nice, the team took great care of me, they knew what to do. Hopefully I will be able to pay them back with a good result.
VN: How would you peg your Tour hopes? Do you make a specific goal: top five, the podium?
LL: At the Tour, you really have to take it day-by-day and set small, little goals. You set goals at different points of the stage. You don’t want to put limits on it, either. You have to focus on what it takes to achieve a big result. I know what it’s like to reach the podium. It’s definitely possible. Anything is possible. It’s all about achieving those little goals along the way; then the results will come. It’s not easy. Each stage has its pitfall that you have to avoid. It’s stressful. You have to fight every day and be ready when the time allows you after three weeks of living on the edge.