Looking to top his 2002 Tour debut
By Andrew Hood
Improving on last year, that’s the goal for American Levi Leipheimeras he heads into his second Tour de France. In an impressive debut in 2002,the Rabobank rider fought his way to eighth place after a spectacular finalweek in the Alps. And despite emergency surgery for blocked intestineslast August, the 29-yearold says he is back in winning shape and wantsto inch closer to the Tour podium.
“I want to improve on last year, for the sponsors and everyone else,”Leipheimer said. “The expectations are higher. I want to keep doing mybest and put into effect everything I’ve learned.”
Things have gone well for Leipheimer since his breakthrough 2001 season,when he became the first American to finish on the podium at the Vueltaa España while riding for the U.S. Postal Service team. His third-placefinish in Spain garnered him a two-year deal with Rabobank as the team’sGC man for the Tour.
Last season, Leipheimer won June’s Tour warm-up, the Route du Sud inFrance, and came into the Tour with realistic expectations. He said hewould do the best he could and see where the chips would fall. After asluggish start, Leipheimer rebounded in the final week to climb into thetop-10. He admits he wasn’t as fresh as he would have liked to have beenin the Pyrénées, but in the Alps he grew stronger as therace wore on.
In fact, that may be Leipheimer’s trump card: He gets better when theracing gets harder. “I rode a good third week last year,” he said. “I wasriding well and the team was good with Michael [Boogerd’s] stage win [atLa Plagne], and I was sixth there. At that point of the race, it was downto the strongest and most enduring riders.”
While the impatient Dutch press might not have been overly impressedwith Leipheimer’s eighth-place debut, he was content. “For sure I was satisfiedwith the performance,” he said. “I left expectations open. I’m not surprisedthat I finished where I did. I was definitely very happy with it. I couldhave finished 100th. The Tour is a very competitive race in a very competitivesport. The difference between eighth and 30th isn’t very much.”
Less than a month after the finish of last year’s Tour, disaster struck.Leipheimer was racing at the Tour of Holland in August when he was struckwith terrible stomach pain. He suffered through the night, and the nextmorning the team doctor shipped him off to a local hospital. A quick diagnosisdetermined Leipheimer had a blocked intestine, something that can be fatalif incorrectly diagnosed.
The ailment, it turned out, came about because of a childhood injuryLeipheimer had all but forgotten about. When he was three, growing up inMontana, one of his parent’s horses kicked him in the stomach. The kickruptured Leipheimer’s large intestines, and he required emergency surgery.Now, 25 years later, scar tissue blocked his intestines and twisted hisstomach into an unnatural position against his diaphragm. Repairing thedamage required three hours of surgery, and Leipheimer endured two weekson his back in a Dutch hospital. When he finally returned to Californiain September, he had lost nearly 20 pounds, most of it muscle.
“I think to most people it looks like a normal rebound, but it was prettydifficult,” Leipheimer said. “It was a slow process.”
Thanks to good American cooking and diligent training, Leipheimer isnow back up to his fighting weight of 135 pounds, ready to rumble.
There will be no major changes to Leipheimer’s program going into thisyear’s Tour. “There are a lot of minor details that add up,” he said.
“Certain aspects of the race, the team time trial, certainly the consistencyin the mountains. If you’re not having the best day, you have to fightto limit your losses. That time might make a difference later on, becauseeveryone has a day when you’re not at your best.”
|“If you’re not having the best day, you have to fight to limit your losses. Everyone has a day when you’re not at your best.”
— Levi Leipheimer
Leipheimer says he’s not losing any sleep over his tendency to startslow in time trials. “I think I’m always going to be a little slower onthe start, but the trick is to have my time trial be good enough. If I’ma little slow in the start, I’m still fast compared to everyone else,”he said. “I’m not the kind of rider who has the fastest first split. Ialways pick up strength as it goes along and I’m one of the fastest inthe second half. That’s just my nature.”
One reason Leipheimer won’t be making any bold statements of victoryis the continuing presence of Lance Armstrong. More experienced Tour ridershaven’t been able to knock off the Texan, so Leipheimer keeps his ambitionsin check. “Yeah, based on what we’ve seen, I do believe he’ll win,” hesaid of Armstrong’s chances at winning his fifth consecutive Tour.
Does Leipheimer see any weaknesses he can exploit? “No, if herides the way’s he’s ridden, there’s no weakness,” he said. “Some riderswill say they’re going to challenge him — blah, blah, blah — it’s justtalk. It’s just someone trying to promote themselves. No one can say they’regoing to put him under pressure. I’d like to see him challenged more. Itwould be better for the sport.”
As for himself, Leipheimer was scheduled to take a short break in May,but wanted to get more racing miles in his legs this year compared to lastyear. “I want to do more racing this year before the Tour than last year,”he said. “I think last year I was little bit under-par before the Tour.This year I cannot afford that.”
So the pressure is on and the stakes are increased. Leipheimerrepeats his theme one more time: “It’s all about the GC,” he said. “I wantto be better than last year.” With his experience and tenacity, there’sa good chance he will.