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Tour de France

Levi Leipheimer: ‘Legs will decide’ who leads RadioShack at Tour de France

Levi Leipheimer insists there will be no leadership battles within RadioShack during the upcoming Tour de France despite the team having as many as four riders capable of riding for GC.

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Levi Leipheimer insists there will be no leadership battles within RadioShack during the upcoming Tour de France despite the team having as many as four riders capable of riding for GC.

2011 Amgen Tour of California, stage 7
Leipheimer and Horner are both headed to the Tour. Who will support whom? Photo: Casey B. Gibson

RadioShack revealed its Tour Nine on Tuesday, with Leipheimer sharing the spotlight as one of the “four musketeers” to lead the U.S.-registered squad into the Tour. Along with Leipheimer, RadioShack brings Chris Horner, Andreas Klöden and Janez Brajkovic, all riders with podium potential.

“We got four guys who can all be high on GC. The legs will decide (who’s the GC captain),” Leipheimer told VeloNews. “That’s the strength of our team. Tactically, we can keep that in mind. We don’t have the big favorite, so the other teams, Saxo Bank and Leopard-Trek, will have to control the race. We can use that to our advantage.”

RadioShack will certainly have the deepest Tour squad, both in terms of strength and experience. Klöden is a two-time runner-up and has been on good form all spring, with victories at the Basque Country tour and three other stages and second overall at Paris-Nice. Leipheimer, too, is a former Tour stage winner and podium man. Brajkovic beat back Alberto Contador last year to win the Dauphiné while Horner is enjoying his best season ever, with second at the Basque tour and victory at the Tour of California.

Whether they can rally around one or two captains during the race remains to be seen, but all four will start the Tour with the potential to the reach the final podium.

“Andy (Schleck) and Alberto are the big favorites. They’re going to have to control the race. HTC will be working on the flats for Cavendish. We’re going to have to race smart and play off those teams,” Leipheimer said. “We have to stay out of trouble, conserve our energy and stay as fresh as possible. And pounce when the opportunity is there.”

Confidence boost with Swiss win

Leipheimer says his confidence is buoyed following his nail-biting, four-second victory over Damiano Cunego at last week’s Tour de Suisse. Leipheimer erased a nearly two-minute deficit to the 2004 Giro d’Italia champ in the final-day, 32km time trial to win what he described as his most important stage-race victory of his career.

“I came into Swiss really strong, but I really wasn’t expecting to win. I just wanted to be totally relaxed. The team came to me and said, ‘we’re going to ride for you here.’ I said, ‘OK, but I want to take it day-by-day.’ I didn’t want to stress the team out, just let me feel my way through it. I started feeling better and better every day,” he said. “I played it perfectly. I didn’t waste any energy during the whole week. I wasn’t on edge until the last day for the time trial. Of course, I am very happy about how it worked out.”

Leipheimer says he hopes to carry that same winning form and attitude into the Tour. This year will be his ninth career start in the French tour, and after crashing out with a broken wrist in 2009 and riding to 13th overall last year, Leipheimer is keen to get back to his best in the season’s most important event. He said the years of experience have helped him take on the challenge and pressure of the Tour with a different mindset.

“I don’t sit here and feel anxious about the Tour, not like I did in my first Tour. I know what to expect and the biggest thing is to stay relaxed,” he said. “I have my mind shut off right now. I just came off a big win, so right now it’s all about recovering and a lot of that is mental. I am still doing everything right, training well, sleeping well, eating the right food. It’s kind of a weird state of mind. It’s hard to convey that mentality.

“We train ourselves on the bike, and over the years, mentally the things you’ve trained for become automatic. More and more of your skills become automatic. That’s what I call experience. You do things without thinking, just like when you’re driving a car. The more experienced you are at your job, the easier some things become. When more of those little details become automatic, that can make a big difference in the Tour.”

Overcoming a rough spring

Leipheimer’s spring was marked by health problems, including a three-week bout with the flu right in the heart of the spring season and a flare-up an old injury dating back to when he was just three years old and kicked in the stomach by a horse.

Leipheimer was poised for a second-place finish in the Volta a Catalunya in March, behind Alberto Contador, when he experienced intense abdominal pain and was forced to abandon the race with just one stage left.

“There is some residual scar tissue and it has to do basically with an obstruction, caused by dehydration, the wrong kind of food at the wrong time, with stress on the body from racing,” he explained. “It was sort of a perfect storm at Catalunya. I was in the hospital all night. That was too bad, because I lost a lot of points and second place.”

Leipheimer said he’s spoken to experts about his condition and said an off-season procedure can likely put an end to the problem. In March, the stomach complication cleared up quickly, but he was soon zapped by the flu. He decided to race the Tour of the Basque Country in early April to help his teammates, but that decision soon backfired on him as his condition worsened.

“I caught a flu bug that was going around. I had that for three weeks. I went to Pays Basque because I wanted to support guys. Andreas and Chris wanted to win, and they’ve helped me win races, so I said I’m going to go there to suffer and help them, but it made it worse,” he said. “I had to take a full week off the bike. Luckily, I was able to pull it together for Cali.”

Leipheimer finished second to teammate Horner and won a stage in California. Bouncing back to win the Tour de Suisse was an extra bonus after what Leipheimer described as one of his most challenging starts to a racing season in his career.

“It’s been a tough year,” he said. “I’ve kept my head down and do what I always do. I love to race my bike, I love to work hard. I just had to stay focused on racing and I tried to forget about my health problems and just climb the ladder. To pull this off (Swiss) and feel stronger every day during the race is great for the Tour de France.”