By Andrew Hood
Levi Leipheimer was at home in California when he woke up a week ago with a surprise message. Instead of racing the Volta a Catalunya and the Dauphiné Libéré as planned, he was going to the Giro d’Italia.
Leipheimer’s Giro debut in Saturday’s team time trial might have come as a surprise, but the American promises to make the most of the unexpected opportunity.
Along with Astana teammates Andreas Klöden and Alberto Contador, the team starts with three options for the podium.
Despite the short notice and less-than-ideal preparation ahead of one of racing’s most difficult stage races, Leipheimer is quietly confident he can do well.
The Tour of California champion wants to wait to see how his legs react going into the decisive second half of the race, but he’s poised to make history. A top-3 finish would give him the unique distinction as being the only American rider to finish on the podium of all three grand tours.
VeloNews chatted with Leipheimer on Saturday evening as he prepared to ride his first Giro. Here are excerpts from the interview:
VeloNews: What was your first reaction when you found out you were going to the Giro?
Levi Leipheimer: I was at home and I woke up and had a message about it. It was Friday, a week ago. There was some talk of it a long time ago and we just kind of figured we weren’t going to get in and forgot about it. I’m not really surprised that we’re in the race, but it was a shock to learn so soon before the start.
VN: A week’s notice can’t be the best way to prepare for a race like the Giro, what have you been doing since the call last week?
LL: I left California on Monday and got here on Tuesday. I flew straight to Sicily. Now I’m trying to get over the jet lag. Normally, you do a race over here before to get your racing form. I haven’t done a lot of racing this spring, so I don’t have that racing form right now. But maybe that’s not such a bad thing. You can ride into fitness in a three-week tour.
VN: Now that you’re here in Sicily, how are you feeling?
LL: I’m definitely excited to be here. I’ve always wanted to do the Giro, but I never had the opportunity with the Tour always being the top goal. I was always racing to prepare for the Tour. I think it’s a great race and a race I’d love to do well at. For that reason, I wish I had more time to prepare for it. But obviously, I’m very happy to be here.
VN: How is your fitness right now?
LL: Georgia wasn’t that long ago. I took it pretty easy after Georgia. I think I’m fresh and maybe just need to hide out for a few days and get my legs going. I’m hoping for the last week, they will be good.
VN: What are you expectations for the overall?
LL: I dream of doing well here. I think it would be incredible to be able to win the race or ride well. The Giro is a race with a ton of history. It’s the 20-year anniversary since (Andy) Hampsten won. We have a strong team and we have three guys who, on paper, can win the race.
VN: Will you wait to see how things are going into the final week to decide for the GC?
LL: It’s not a decision that I’m going to make. It’s a decision that my legs will make and my competitors will make.
VN: How will it work out between you, Andreas and Alberto?
LL: We have three guys who can do well in the GC, so you have to keep all your options open.
VN: Have you had a chance to study the route, even the first half of the Giro isn’t easy?
LL: It’s definitely up and down, but there’s nothing that’s super decisive in the first week. There are some little uphill finishes that if they’re hard and technical, we could see some gaps if the group splits, so you’ll have to be attentive. The first summit finish isn’t until stage seven and it isn’t super hard. There’s time in this race to gain fitness.
VN: Have you ever ridden any of the climbs in the Giro before?
LL: No, I’ve never ridden any of these climbs. If we had known before we were coming, we could have had the chance to ride them, but I don’t know any of them.
VN: Astana is a favorite for the team time trial, has there been any discussion of who might cross the line first if the pink jersey is up for grabs?
LL: We definitely have a shot to win and there’s no reason why we cannot. We have to see how the race plays out. You never know who’s left at the end, who’s strong and who’s hanging on. You have to decide that on the fly. I don’t think it’s a good idea to say who’s going to cross the line first to take the jersey. That’s a little presumptuous.
VN: It’s been a crazy year for the team with the exclusion from the Tour and then the invitation to the Giro, how has the team been coping with the uncertainty?
LL: The decisions on the races have impacted the team a lot. For me, the Tour is the only race I really missed out on. For the other guys, like Gusev, they missed Roubaix and some of the other big spring races. We said right away when we heard about, that we’ll just focus on the races that we’re in and we’ll try to win them all. I think so far we’ve done a good, with California, Castilla y León, País Vasco and Romandie. I think we’ve shown that when it comes to stage races, we’re the best team in the world. That’s our goal.
VN: Any hope of a last-minute change of heart from the Tour organizers?
LL: I’m not holding my breath, that’s for sure. I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think they’re too proud to change their decision.