Vuelta revelation Leipheimer is focused on his Tour debut
By Andrew Hood
Sometime last spring, Levi Leipheimer got the bad news. He wouldn’t be going to the 2001 Tour de France. Though he probably didn’t think so at the time, it was the best thing that could have happened to him. Instead of helping Lance Armstrong win his third consecutive Tour, Leipheimer retreated to California and focused on the Vuelta a España. The rest — to borrow a cliché — is history.
Leipheimer finished third overall in his first-ever start of a major three-week stage race, and was the first American to ever appear on the Vuelta podium. His surprising strength in the mountains complemented his well-known time-trialing prowess, and had a lot of European team directors who weren’t familiar with the easy-going American taking notice.
A week after last year’s world championships, Leipheimer signed a two-year deal with Rabobank, the Dutch-based team that he will lead in his first appearance at the Tour de France.An established squad that has won Tour stages with Erik Dekker and others, Rabobank hasn’t had the same kind of success in the fight for the general classification. Team boss Jan Raas thought he had his man in Michael Boogerd, but the lean Dutchman never bettered his fifth-place finish in 1998, so the team was looking for a rider who could give the sponsor more publicity in the overall.
“I don’t think people are expecting me to step in and win,” Leipheimer says. “I’m an outsider. I still need to learn. I just want to go in and try to have the same mentality as I did in the Vuelta last year, and just concentrate on what I know how to do best.”
Leipheimer said the team has welcomed him with open arms.
“Nobody’s given me a cold shoulder or anything,” he says. “As soon as I went to their year-end party, both Michael and Erik came up to me here right away and welcomed me and asked me if I needed anything.”
The 28-year-old believes his focus on the Tour — he didn’t race at the Giro d’Italia as he had originally planned — will finally allow him to discover his full potential as an athlete. At Postal, he was often on the team’s second squad, which meant lots of travel between the United States and Europe and often being told at the last minute which race his services would be needed for. This year, he’s focused on one goal and can plan his season around being ready for July.
“Now I’m getting a lot more high-quality racing,” he says. “With Postal I had to go back and forth between the U.S. and Europe, and I was doing races like Dunkirk, De Panne … races that didn’t suit me. I couldn’t really develop in those races. Now I’m doing all the hard stage races and doing hard training in between to build a base. I still think I’m developing as a rider.”After an active spring that included the Mediterranean Tour, Tour of Valencia, Tour of Murcia, Setmana Catalana, Tour of the Basque Country, Flèche Wallonne, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Tour de Romandie, Leipheimer says he’s fitter than ever.
“For sure I definitely feel stronger than last year,” he says. “There’s definitely more in the bank for July.”
Does he feel any pressure?
“I don’t feel it right now,” he says. “I’m just saying, ‘What the hell, I’m just going to go do it.’ What’s the point of putting pressure on myself? I don’t know what place I’m going to get. I just want to go in and do the best I can, like I did when I went to the Vuelta. I had the confidence, the training and everything was going well and I did my best, that’s what came out of it.
“I didn’t think, ‘[Angel] Casero, ohh-ohh, he’s so good.’ I didn’t pay attention to anyone else. I just did the basic things, stayed in the front, concentrated on what’s going on in the race, focused on the important things.”But the Vuelta is no Tour de France. By September, racers are tired, and the Spanish race simply doesn’t compare with the prestige and quality of racing at the Tour. Nevertheless, Leipheimer says he’s up to the challenge.
“I can see it definitely being more fighting for position, but it was hard at the Vuelta, too,” he says. “I know the roads are smaller at the Tour. It’s a bigger race, everyone pays much more attention and everyone takes it much more seriously. All the best riders in the world are there. It’s going to be a little bit more intense in every way than the Vuelta.”
Leipheimer is hesitant to commit to a specific goal regarding finishing order when the Tour rolls into Paris on July 28.
“There are goals, but I’m worrying more about the objectives with training and being ready,” he says. “I’m more worried about that and then we’ll see what place I get. If I’ve done everything right, I feel good and get 10th, that’s fine.”