Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack) lines up Saturday as an outsider for overall victory in a Tour de France that most expect to see as a battle between Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador.
Hanging in the shadows of that duel is just fine for Leipheimer, who is hot off winning his most important European victory of his career, at the Tour de Suisse in mid-June. He won it in typical Leipheimer fashion, by limiting his losses in the mountains and taking it back in the time trial. He erased a nearly two-minute deficit to Damiano Cunego in the final-day race against the clock to score a narrow, four-second victory.
It’s a strategy that sometimes frustrates some fans and media, who want to see riders attack to overall victory. Leipheimer staunchly defended his racing style, telling VeloNews that the most important thing at the end of a bike race is whose name is carved into the winner’s trophy.
“It’s easy to be armchair quarterback. It’s hard to explain to someone if they’ve never been to the Tour de France what it takes to climb 20km cols, four or five in a day, for days on end,” Leipheimer said. “At the end of the day, if you win the race, that’s the most important thing. I wish sometimes I could accelerate like Alberto. It’s pretty awesome to watch from inside the peloton. The fans love that, but when you’re in the race, well, this is a hard sport. Sometimes everyone is going so hard you cannot attack.”
After more than a decade at the elite level of the sport, Leipheimer says he’s smart enough and honest enough with himself to recognize his own strengths and weaknesses. Leipheimer admits that Contador is a better climber, but he is loathe to attack for attacking sake, especially when the downside is perhaps losing more time than expected after a hard dig that falls short.
“Alberto is faster uphill than me and the rest of the world. The only thing I can do is look at how do I get to the finish line as fast as I can,” he said. “You need to be thinking. You gotta do the best you can with what you have. I don’t have that acceleration like Contador. I have to calculate. The goal is to get from Point A to Point B in the least amount of time possible. That’s how I’ve always raced.”
That calculating style of racing sometimes doesn’t create the same level of drama as Contador’s lethal attacks, but it consistently delivers victories. Leipheimer has earned three grand tour podiums (third in the 2007 Tour, third in the 2001 Vuelta a Espana and second in the 2008 Vuelta). As well, he’s won the Dauphiné, the Tour of Germany, the Vuelta a Castilla y León and the Tour de Suisse, not to mention three straight Tours of California, all with his trademark strategy of limiting losses in the mountains and delivering a strong performance in the time trial.
“I believe when I am strong, I can go toe-to-toe with these guys. Maybe I am not attacking, but I am going to be annoyingly close and never have a bad day, and sometimes I pull out a time trial like I did at the Tour de Suisse,” he said. “If I am strong enough to attack, it’s because I believe I can go all the way to the finish. To do that against guys like Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador, you have to be damn strong. There are a lot of riders who attack just to get on TV. Maybe they feel the pressure of someone making a comment. Someone says, ‘hey, we never see you attack,’ so they attack. When we’re sitting in the peloton and we see someone go, you know it’s not going to work. Maybe it makes the race more exciting, but it’s not going to change the race.”
Perhaps more than anyone beyond Schleck, Leipheimer has been the rider who’s come closest to derailing Contador over the past few seasons. At the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, Leipheimer took bronze ahead of Contador’s fourth in the time trial event. In 2007, Leipheimer came within 31 seconds of winning what was Contador’s first victory when he won the final stage and finished third overall (a time difference that included a 10-second time penalty that cost Leipheimer second place). The following year, when Astana was kept out of the Tour, Leipheimer rode to second place just 46 behind Contador in the Vuelta a Espana. Take away the time bonuses, and Contador would have only nipped Leipheimer by fractions of seconds based on the TT tie-breaker.
Of course, Contador would have raced every differently in that Vuelta if Leipheimer was a rival instead of a teammate, but the closeness of those results underscores that Leipheimer can stay within striking range of Contador at the end of a major race. And that’s just how Leipheimer looks at an event as multi-dimensional and complicated as the Tour.
“Cycling is a very complex sport. I still learn stuff all the time and I’ve been doing this most of my life. As you learn more about it, you can appreciate all different aspects and different racing styles. I could have attacked at the Tour de Suisse, on one of the final climbs, but it was super-windy and it wouldn’t have gone anywhere. It might have been an attack that could have weakened me a few days later. And Cunego was strongest on the climbs, so I knew I wasn’t going to gain time on him there,” he said. “Sometimes it depends on which side of the TV you’re on. I see a lot of supportive comments on Twitter and I appreciate that.”
Without a doubt, the wheel that Leipheimer will be measuring up against for the next three weeks will be Contador’s.
“That’s not news (that Contador is the favorite to win). I didn’t watch the entire Giro, but from what I heard and read about it is that Alberto won commandingly. He’s won the last six grand tours he’s started. The writing’s on the wall. He’s tough to beat,” Leipheimer said. “Are we going to go stay home and give it to him? Hell no. We’re going to devise the best strategy we can and wait for the opportunity to come to beat him. Of course he’s beatable. With Alberto, you have to lose as little as time as possible and try to take it back in the time trial. That’s the bad part for Andy Schleck, because Alberto is a better time trialist. (Contador’s) got this acceleration that’s just unmatched by anyone. He is much more lethal with his attacks. Sometimes he just goes for it without thinking about it or looking at the bigger picture, but he’s getting more calculating as he gets older.”