Levi Leipheimer is a man between endpoints. How those endpoints are currently defined, however, he can’t quite say.
Leipheimer is a former world-class athlete, but with a permanent stain on his legacy. He spent half his life building toward achievements that many see as meaningless. He is a former role model, but a man without a platform. He carries a wealth of knowledge about professional cycling, but is uncertain where that information is welcomed. He’s apologized for his actions, knowing full well that many will never forgive him.
It’s been 20 months since USADA’s reasoned decision blew the lid on organized doping within the U.S. Postal Service team, and since Leipheimer, and several other American riders, admitted to doping at various points in their careers.
And while many of those riders continued racing after serving six-month off-season suspensions, Leipheimer’s career ended after he was unceremoniously dropped by his Omega Pharma-Quick Step team — an action that USADA CEO Travis Tygart called “a classic omerta move.”
An aging athlete in transition, Leipheimer, now 40, is not without his outlets. He still rides, regularly, in his hometown of Santa Rosa, California — sometimes alongside fellow resident Peter Stetina, of BMC Racing. He works with young riders from the NorCal High School Cycling League.
And Leipheimer has his namesake event, Levi’s Gran Fondo, the annual event, now into its sixth year, that attracts 7,500 participants and has taken on added significance to him in his post-racing life.
In a trailer for a new documentary about his gran fondo (below), and how the event has fared in the aftermath of the USADA revelations, Leipheimer says, candidly, “People don’t want to hear anything that I have to say, and I don’t blame them.”
Yet we wanted to hear what Leipheimer had to say.
VeloNews spoke with him twice last month. First, during a bike ride in Sonoma County, in the days before the Amgen Tour of California, a race he won three times; a second conversation, presented here, occurred several days after the California race had ended.
The objective? To find out where Leipheimer sits with his controversial past, and what lies ahead in his future.
VeloNews: So… what have you been up to?
Levi Leipheimer: That’s not an easy one to answer. I was racing for 17 years. It’s been a big transition. Bike racing was my career, my profession, and it became second nature. I’d thought during my career, ‘what would I do afterwards? What would my life be like?’ and I always told myself I would take some time off, to decompress.
After being a pro, watching the Giro d’Italia recently, on TV, it makes me realize how stressful it was. There was a lot of pressure involved. At the time you tell yourself it’s not that much pressure, but it’s been a big decompression for the last year and a half.
I’ve been focused on the gran fondo, which is kind of my baby. It’s something I’m quite proud of. We’ve been able to support a number of beneficiaries, like the NorCal League, and I’ve worked with some kids, dome some camps with them, been to some races. I think that what NICA (National Interscholastic Cycling Association) and the NorCal League are doing is revolutionary. I am super proud that this ride, which I thought up years ago, is now a sponsor of the NorCal League.
My wife Odessa has been volunteering for the Forget Me Not Farm for almost six years now, and through the GranFondo we have raised a half-million dollars over the last five years, for a very worthy cause — it’s a therapy farm that services kids who have had an extreme upbringing, just extreme experiences in their lives. It’s an effort to break that cycle of abuse. We’ve raised money for these kids, and these animals. I feel like it is something for me to focus on. I love being involved.
I am still able to keep riding, and to be healthy, and it makes me happy to be able to be fit and do long rides on my bike. After all those years, I realize the main reason I was ever at that level is because I loved to ride my bike, and I am very fortunate to still do that. I realize that more than ever.
I’ve also gotten back into my first love, skiing, which I put off for a long time, it was something I had to put off. When I was racing, I would see photos, or ski races on TV, and I always looked forward to the day I got back into it. That’s been super cool, just trying to ease my way back into a normal life.
VN: Is it really possible to have a normal life, living in Santa Rosa, where you are so associated with both the Amgen Tour of California and the gran fondo?
LL: I define normal as… not having to be physically the best you can be at all times. I had to race 100 days a year, the season lasts nine months… you sacrifice a lot. You’re always either killing yourself on the bike, or resting, there is not a lot in between. I still ride, but I’m not worrying about it. If there’s a get together, or a late night out in San Francisco… during my career I just wouldn’t do it, I was super strict with my lifestyle. Now I don’t have to be so uptight with my physical state. I don’t have to worry about being sharp as a knife. I don’t get a regular massage anymore. For me, that’s how I define a normal life. I don’t have to put myself first all the time.
VN: Hearing you say, “I don’t put myself first all the time” — that sounds like something you hear from new parents. Which is interesting, considering that you and Odessa don’t have any children. It’s also interesting, given that you both are involved now in organizations that benefit children.
LL: For a few reasons, Odessa and I decided early on that we weren’t going to have kids, but we are both big animal lovers. She has been heavily involved in animal rescue and advocacy for 14 years now. We have 22 pets at home, that are all rescues, horses, goats, llamas, pigs, sheep, and they are pretty much our children. We made a documentary a few years ago about the gran fondo, and she is interviewed in the documentary, and she went to the farm, and got to work with these at-risk children, and after working there for a while, she said that she was never meant to have her own kids, these were the kids she was meant to help in this world, and it surprised her in a way. I feel that way a bit about NICA and the NorCal League, I get to give back to these kids and give back to the sport of cycling.
VN: So there will be people — parents in particular — reading this that will stop there and say, ‘What is Levi Leipheimer doing, working with kids in cycling, after admitting to having doped, and lied about it, for years?’ How do you reconcile that?
LL: It’s a fair question. I don’t have kids, but I know, from my parents, they made mistakes in their lives, and they didn’t want to see their kids make mistakes. I think that is something every parent can relate to. However [young riders] want to take my story is up to them, but to hear it from someone like myself, it can only benefit them. Obviously I am not telling kids to take drugs, I am just answering questions. My attitude is, ‘let’s not pretend this never happened,’ no one is going to learn from that. I didn’t want that situation. I never dreamed about taking drugs as a 12 year old, but somewhere along the way I crossed that line, and I justified it. If you read the news of cycling, this was a problem. I wish it wasn’t a problem when I was a pro, and I’d like to continue to see it get better.
In a new documentary, which is out now, there’s a scene where I am talking to some kids, and they asked me anything that came to mind, and I answered best way I knew how. It was candid: When was the last time I took drugs? What it was like? It’s not a fun thing to live with now. I guess that’s what I am known for now. It gets tricky. I am just doing my best to help them understand the situation, and understand my experience, and continue to help make cycling better. I realize that, by choosing to do drugs, I didn’t help the situation.
VN: After the USADA report came out, the cards fell differently for different people. Your career ended, others’ did not, and they’re still racing. Do you feel that you were not treated fairly once the truth came to light?
LL: We were part of this world where…I don’t have the right to claim anything was unfair. I knew the rules all along, if you were caught, it was most likely the end of your career. The Garmin guys were on the right team. Jonathan Vaughters has a very progressive view, and, they were lucky to be on that team.
VN: Was it hard to end your career on those terms? Or had you spent the 2012 season thinking, ‘this could be it’?
LL: I knew that could be it. The way everything went down was not ideal. I had a long career, I crossed that line, like a lot of guys did, and I knew the rules. It was a difficult thing to go through. I knew what I was doing when I made the choice. I have to accept what happened. That’s the bottom line.
VN: When you’re with a young pro, let’s use Peter Stetina as an example — how do you address the topic of doping in cycling when it comes up?
LL: I’m totally open and honest. There’s nothing to hide about it. It’s not like it’s something he brings up often, but if it’s relevant, we’ll talk about it. I try to take what I learned from all that, how we justified doing it, and recognize some of the mistakes we made.
VN: When you say ‘mistakes we made,’ what exactly does that mean?
LL: I think it’s hard for people, when they see a really great performance, given the history of the sport, it’s human nature to doubt it. With younger guys, I remind them that you can’t always think there is something fishy going on. That breaks you down over time. I think, with the [doping] controls the way they are now, there is no wiggle room. Guys can’t fool around with what we did, with what we went through. When we were seeing amazing performances, we knew what was going on, it was obvious, and it became very easy to justify doing it ourselves.
I try to steer them away from those pitfalls. It is human nature to doubt. But you still see great performances, and now that all that stuff is out there, the fans, everyone, Chris Froome, have to defend themselves left and right. People are a bit scorned. But in the example of a young rider like Pete, I try to steer them towards not worrying about it so much. If you think about that stuff too much, it doesn’t help you to do your best.
VN: The 2012 edition of your grand fondo was held right before the USADA report came out; you had almost a full year before the 2013 edition to brace yourself for any potential backlash, as the namesake of the event. What was that like?
LL: We sent out an email to everyone who has ever done the fondo, and I personally answered a lot of the replies. We put out a documentary, which had a piece in it about this. We also have a new documentary coming out, which focuses on that question. It’s hard to answer it in one sentence. A lot of people have been supportive and understanding. I think people are forgiving, and I’m asking for forgiveness and many people have given it to me. I feel fortunate for that.
All of our perspective changes over time. Nothing is ever black and white — it’s only a matter of how much attention you want to give it that determines your level of grayness. I understand if people don’t want to give it any time, or thought. People who have given it some thought, have been understanding, and forgiving. I think over time that will become more and more clear, and I think cycling, in the end, can turn into a positive, cycling will come out stronger from this dark period. I feel like it’s made me a better person, and I see that for cycling as well.
VN: You said you understand that people don’t want to hear what you have to say. So why do an interview? Why talk about it at all?
LL: I guess my motivation, for talking about all this, is that we’re trying to show some character — trying to be stand-up about it, trying to take responsibility for our actions. I realize some people don’t want to hear that, and that’s fine, but some people have been forgiving, and understanding, and they’ll hold us to a higher standard form here on out.
VN: How much bigger can the fondo get? It has 7,500 participants, and it sells out every year.
LL: I don’t think we quantify our event with numbers. We’ll hold steady at 7,500. The main goal is to make it better every year. Trying to have the biggest numbers isn’t the way to make it better. We want to improve the quality of the event. There is a big story there that has to do with our community. We have over 1,000 volunteers, people who love cycling, they know what it means to our community. To me it is a reflection of our community, the appreciation of what it means to ride out, through the redwoods to the Pacific Ocean. It’s one of the best places to ride your bike in the world.
I love the sport, I love Sonoma County, I love Northern California, and I am super proud of what we’ve done with the fondo. The team, the guys from Bike Monkey, Carlos [Perez] and Greg [Fisher], it was total luck on my part that they are here, and that they have gotten behind me, and created something really cool, with a great story behind it. That’s my motivation.
I don’t make any money from the fondo. I have never taken a penny from it, that’s not my motivation for creating this event, or trying to promote it. That’s not what it’s about. It was a very pure concept. I moved to Sonoma County in the early part of my career, and I feel like this place forged me into a better cyclist — the roads, the geography, the community, the people, my friends, I just wanted to … it hit me, that this, the event, was the way to tell the story, to show people what it was like, what it was that inspired me to train every day, despite how I felt, or what the weather was like. It wasn’t about having an event and charging people money; that never even entered my mind.
VN: Where do you see yourself in five years?
LL: I don’t have a clear answer for that. At some point I need to make a decision. I love cycling, but I don’t think I’ll be involved on the competitive side, with a team, or as a director. I love the sport, I just have to find a niche where I can give back, or at least do my best to make amends.