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Q&A: Leipheimer on doping — and moving on from the past

Editor’s note: In the November issue of Velo magazine, senior writer Matthew Beaudin explored the different paths taken by Levi Leipheimer, Christian Vande Velde, Tom Danielson, Dave Zabriskie, George Hincapie, and others after they confessed to using performance-enhancing drugs during their careers. This interview appears in part in that story, entitled “Shades of Grey.” The interview has been condensed. 

VeloNews: Things seem to have gone differently for some of those who confessed. How’s the reaction been, and why does it seem to differ from rider to rider?
Levi Leipheimer: Each one of us in that group has had the same exact amount of negative reactions and positive reactions, in the extreme both ways. Maybe in reality there is a difference, but it all depends on who you’re looking at in each person with each case. We’ve all gone separate ways. Christian has gone on to do TV, so it’s very easy for people to relate to him. They see him talking and see that he’s human, so that’s part of his story. George is out there promoting his clothing a lot. You mentioned that you saw him at the race.

I’m more in my community, doing things here, like local mountain bike races … For sure guys like Christian, George, Dave, Tom have all been the target of what the Internet has become, which allows everyone to have a voice and express their opinion. Does that reflect reality; do you get to read everyone’s opinion? No. A lot of people are just more vocal and good at being loud. There’s definitely more negativity than positivity, but real life reactions, one-on-one and face-to-face … it’s been 100 percent positive. Crusher for example, I had so many conversations with people who were stoked to be there, to improve themselves, to have fun.

VN: Are you OK with where things are at? Is it as good as it is going to get with people’s attitudes towards not only you, but everyone involved? Will it ever get better for you and the others? Where does it sit with you?
LL: First off, I’d say that this whole thing has without a doubt made me a better person. It’s made me realize a lot of things. How you treat people, if you’re nice to people, if you respect people and I’ve made the effort to be better at that. I’m not saying I was a complete [expletive] before, but it reinforced that belief and I’m looking at the positive side of it.

Do I want to make excuses for what we did in the past so that people could be compassionate to our troubles? Well in the picture with everything that’s going on in the world, I think that it’s not something to focus on.

It was an unfortunate era in cycling and none of us are proud of what we did, but we did [it] and we can’t change it. It’s part of who I am, my history, and there’s nothing I can do to change it, but I’m doing the best I can to move forward and I’m being the best person I can. Hopefully that’s what matters to everyone in the end. I think 99 percent of people that I meet or hear from are supportive and forgiving and somewhat understand that it wasn’t just black and white, but very gray. We compromised ourselves, but it’s over now, done with.

VN: Do you think people are in a place now to move on or are people still stuck in the past with this sort of thing?
LL: I don’t know. For us, we lived it for so long. We were aware of the whole mess for such a long time, over a decade or more. The public are catching up, so that’s different. It’s a perspective that happened to me a long time ago. I can understand that people are upset because they were under the impression that our sport was clean and we were in a different reality. I completely understand that people were disappointed. I feel bad that I let so many people down, and I always will. Hopefully with time, the perspective of the sport and how much better it is now and how it’s been a process and a struggle. Now that anti-doping has improved, it’s raised a lot of awareness and it’s a focus. And whenever you have a focus on something the awareness increases and it usually gets better.

VN: Has cycling has been a positive or negative, in the end?
LL: Without a doubt it’s a positive thing. It’s just a complicated story and like everything, you can’t be proud of everything in your life. But cycling has been so much to me. It fills something inside of me. When I was 13 years old and started watching the Tour and riding a road bike, I felt a part of me that I had never felt before. It gave me purpose and meaning and nothing else does that. I still go out on my bike … it’s inspiring, it refreshes my soul, it’s therapy. It’s the same thing for me as it is for anybody, it’s just such a big part of my life and there is no way it can be negative to me. I just made some decisions that I’m not proud of.

VN: What’s your response to watching races? When you watch cycling what do you feel?
LL: I’m a fan of the sport, I’ve always watched races, whether I was 13 or 19 dreaming of racing the Tour or racing the Tour, I always watched the sport. I’m a huge fan; I still watch it today. I have this privileged perspective of having been there before, so I still have the sensations when I’m watching. My heart rate goes up when I watch a field sprint, I feel the suffering when they’re going up the mountains. There is absolutely no bitterness toward the sport. Sure I don’t miss the travel, the nonstop stress of performing your best every time, but I miss that feeling suffering up a climb with the five best climbers in the world, I miss that feeling. But I had [it], so I’m happy to move on.

For me now … the community that gave so much to me along the way, literally hundred and hundreds of people … The gran fondo is just about going out doing this epic huge ride and getting young kids and the next generation of kids excited about cycling. I ride a lot with the younger guys around here and just try to pass along knowledge. Knowledge that I didn’t know I had until I started helping people with riding and training and how they view the bike.

VN: They probably appreciate it, too. I mean, I doubt parents are saying, “you better not listen to Levi because he made bad decisions so many years ago.”
LL: Well, I think that it’s important to address both. Parents make mistakes when they’re younger and they don’t want their kids to make those same mistakes, so I don’t want those kids to go into an environment with an overwhelming amount of pressure like I did. When confronted, I told the truth and have gone on the record multiple times talking about what I did. It hasn’t been easy, it draws a lot of scrutiny and criticism. I did my part with USADA, above and beyond any sort of agreement. Everything they’ve asked of me, I’ve done it. I went to Atlanta and sat in a room with experts and scientists and answered their questions so I could make it better.

When I was 13, I didn’t think I needed to take drugs to race in the Tour. Everything was little by little, making the line in the sand, moving it and moving it and it was a long process that brought me to where I am.

VN: A long process back, too. Do you think it’s taken a long time for people to soften up people’s feelings?
LL: I think it’s case by case. If you read a few comments on the Internet, you realize that this isn’t what it’s really like. If you talk to people face-to-face, 99.99 percent of the people have given it some thought and that it’s not black and white. I think with time that other percentage will soften up and understand it.

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