Lance Armstrong’s bid to win an eighth Tour de France may be over, but one of the men who knows him best believes the Texan can still help his RadioShack teammate Levi Leipheimer make the podium this year. That man is Dr. Massimo Testa, who was Armstrong’s first trainer when he made his Tour debut with the Motorola team in 1993 and has been Leipheimer’s personal coach for more than five years.
“If Lance is not injured too badly he’s gonna be a key factor to help Levi,” Testa told VeloNews in Morzine-Avoriaz Sunday night. “In the history of cycling, everything goes in cycles, and this would be a good way for it to go.
“Knowing Lance, I don’t think he’s gonna give up, especially as he has a teammate like Levi that can make it to Paris in the top three; he’s gonna do the maximum. There’s a good quality of Lance’s personality: If he cannot win himself he is gonna do a lot for his team.
“It’s a different race when Lance is in the race, there’s no doubt about that. I mean, the guy has a special charisma. There’s only one Lance in our generation.”
And with 12 more stages remaining in his final Tour, Armstrong can call on that charisma to guide Leipheimer, who holds seventh place overall after a steady first week. The only blip was losing time on Tuesday’s cobblestone stage. Delayed by a puncture, he finished with a 50-man group 2:25 behind the winning break that contained Cadel Evans and Andy Schleck, the current top two riders on GC. Interestingly, Leipheimer’s current deficit is 2:14.
Asked about his client’s form, Testa said, “I think he came into the race with good condition … good enough to make the podium. Levi is a guy that has the quality and the mental strength, and he’s showed it, he made the podium already once. Last year, he had great condition but he had bad luck (when he crashed out with a broken wrist). So I think he got some credit with the race. The podium is definitely a reasonable goal now that he is the team leader.”
Because of Armstrong’s presence, Leipheimer has raced below the radar of the Tour media. In Monday’s edition of L’Équipe, the influential French sports daily, devoted a double-page spread to all what the paper considers its race favorites.
There were detailed stories on Evans, Schleck, Alberto Contador, Denis Menchov, Ivan Basso, Bradley Wiggins and even the American’s RadioShack Teammate Jani Brajkovic. But not a word on Leipheimer, who’s not only one of the best climbers, but has beaten all these riders in long time trials — such as the one that awaits this Tour in Bordeaux the day before the finish.
His relative anonymity can be helpful. At the Avoriaz finish Sunday, he politely turned downed a request for some comments “because of what happened” to Armstrong. While other contenders went to the podium for jersey ceremonies and/or faced TV crews seeking instant quotes, Leipheimer quickly changed into a dry top, grabbed some food and rode back down the mountain to his hotel.
Over the years, Leipheimer has proven that he gets better in the second half of grand tours, and for the first time he’s now the undisputed leader of what is the strongest team in the race, in terms of personnel, experience and teammates.
No other rider in this race has such a panoply of riders to back him up. Besides seven-time winner Armstrong, the RadioShack arsenal contains Dauphiné winner Brajkovic, two-time Tour podium finisher Andreas Klöden (who is fast reaching top form), and a motivated Chris Horner (who is riding his strongest Tour), along with powerful domestiques Sergio Paulinho, Yaroslav Popovych, Gregory Rast and Dmitriy Muravyev.
Reviewing the race situation with two weeks left, Leipheimer’s coach Testa said, “This is going to be a very interesting Tour. Lance, for me, was one of the top guys for the podium along with Contador, Andy and Cadel. But Levi has a shot now to do well; he’s solid and consistent. And it looks like no one can dominate, or has the strength and the team to dominate, so they’re gonna leave the race wide open. That will be good for the show.”
And maybe good for Leipheimer, too.