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Rating the Tour de France favorites, from W(iggins) to Z

Levi Leipheimer (USA) Omega Pharma-Quick Step ★★★

The biggest question for Levi Leipheimer ahead of the Tour de France is whether being hit by a car in April set him back too far to be a serious contender or if the time he spent off the bike recuperating will ultimately give him an edge.

Leipheimer’s third place overall in the Tour de Suisse this month sent a clear message that he is coming up to form since recovering from a broken left fibula, just in time to place a bid on the Tour de France title.

After five top-10 finishes at the Tour, Leipheimer knows what it takes. And going into the Tour de Suisse, he was nothing if not well rested and looking forward to topping off his training with some tough racing kilometers.

“I will be fresh, because I have had such a big break there when I normally would have been racing,” Leipheimer told VeloNews at the prologue of the Swiss tour.

“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.”

At the Amgen Tour of California, fans were reluctant to believe that the hometown golden boy wouldn’t line up in perfect form in Santa Rosa and casually ride to a podium result. The truth of his lagging training after his time off the bike did not fully hit home until the Bakersfield time trial, where Leipheimer, a three-time California TT winner, placed 17th.

Nevertheless, Leipheimer was impressive in the mountains, given the weeks he was forced off his bike after a Spanish driver struck him from behind on the eve of the Tour of the Basque Country, fracturing his fibula. Leipheimer bounced back from his disappointing time trial to take ninth at the mountaintop finish on Mount Baldy two days later — a stage he won in 2011.

After finishing third, ahead of Fränk Schleck, on the hors categorie summit at Arosa in the eighth stage at the Tour de Suisse, Leipheimer acknowledged that he was not yet at peak fitness yet, but expected to reach it by the Tour’s final week.

“I’m happy because I’m improving day by day,” he said. “It’s a good trajectory for the Tour de France.”

When he’s at his best, there is little risk of the race getting away from Leipheimer. He is experienced and poised, and while he famously struggles with the repeated, sharp attacks of riders like Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck, Leipheimer the diesel won’t face either of them at the Tour.

Leipheimer won the final TT at the Tour in 2007; so long as he can stay with Wiggins and Evans in the mountains, he should have a shot at the final podium. If he were to find himself there, Leipheimer would be one of the oldest podium finishers in the race’s history, at 38.

An American in a Belgian squad traditionally built more for the classics and stage wins than the GC, Leipheimer will see support from, and perhaps even a strong one-two punch with, Peter Velits. World time trial champion Tony Martin and Sylvain Chavanel will be there as well, but Leipheimer and Velits will largely be on their own when the race hits the Pyrénées in the final week. How deep the American can go, 3.5 months after suffering his broken leg, is largely a question yet to be answered.

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