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Leipheimer and Totschnig chase one for the team at Gerolsteiner
By Andrew Hood
Levi Leipheimer and Georg Totschnig shared more at last year’s Tour de France than their top-10 finishes. In key mountain stages, whenever the roads went up, both quickly found themselves isolated without any team support.
Leipheimer’s Rabobank teammate Michael Rasmussen spent much of the Tour in a vain hunt for a stage win, so when the time came for Leipheimer to find a friendly wheel, the former mountain-bike world champion was already blown out the back. Totschnig, meanwhile, got some help on the mountain approaches from his young Gerolsteiner teammates, but he was often left to fight alone on the steepest climbs against the U.S. Postal Service juggernaut. It was enough just to hang on.
That’s going to change in this year’s Tour, as Leipheimer and Totschnig join forces at Gerolsteiner. When crunch time comes this year, they both will have at least one familiar face in the group.
“I am the happiest man on the team now that Levi is here,” said Totschnig, who finished seventh overall in 2004, 18:27 back. “Last year I was left alone on too many climbs, and I saw the same with Levi. We have some young riders who are getting stronger in the mountains, but last year I had nobody.”
ONE FOR ALL
Leipheimer sounds just as happy about his new home at Gerolsteiner, a small German team with big ambitions. He says he likes the team’s laid-back demeanor and well-organized, down-to-business style. Part of Gerolsteiner’s fortifying effort was signing Leipheimer to join Totschnig as the team’s leader for the Tour de France.
“We wanted a rider of Levi’s qualities to be able to give us more of a threat in the Tour,” said team manager Hans-Michael Holczer. “He and Georg will be able to help each other and thus help the team. Both riders will have a chance, so if both are doing well, it only helps the overall team.”
Leipheimer insists he’s more than willing to share the load with his new Austrian teammate. After three seasons of carrying all of Rabobank’s GC hopes, the 31-year-old from Montana welcomes a rider who can share the burden.
“I know that two of us who aren’t really clear favorites can go about achieving our goals without stepping on each other’s toes,” Leipheimer says. “It’s good because it helps us feed off each other as far as the team aspect goes. If one is going well, and the other isn’t, then the team is okay.”
After finishing ninth overall last year, 20:12 back, his second top 10 in three Tour starts, Leipheimer says that while his Tour “apprenticeship” at Rabobank was fruitful, he knows it’s time to step up. “I want a top five, and if you’re in the top five, you never know what can happen with a little bit of luck,” he said.
Leipheimer turned to American training guru Massimo Testa in the off-season to help build his agility and climbing strength, something essential to staying in close range of the podium. He also renewed his friendship with six-time Tour champion Lance Armstrong. The pair trained together in March on Spain’s Canary Isles and Armstrong even called Leipheimer his most dangerous American rival.
“I feel so much better at this time of year than I’ve ever felt,” Leipheimer said during the Dodge Tour de Georgia. “I really feel confident with the changes I’ve made this year. I think I’m on a different level for sure.”
BOTH FOR ONE
Totschnig is an unlikely Tour contender. He grew up in the heartland of Austria’s ski country at Meierhofen, where he watched his school friends try their luck in downhill skiing while he caught the cycling bug as a teen.
After turning pro in 1993 and riding for an Italian team, Polti, for three years, his stock surged when he signed with Telekom in 1997 to be one of Jan Ullrich’s key helpers in the mountains. A natural climber, Totschnig toiled for four years in the shadow of the German star before the upstart Gerolsteiner offered him the chance to bear their 2001 Tour hopes.
“I felt at Telekom that I stopped in my evolution as a rider because my job was to help Jan,” he said. “Gerolsteiner was a smaller team, they were patient for me to get results, but it allowed me to get better and improve. The years in Telekom were not lost years, but they were not for my personal development.”
Totschnig didn’t exactly blow the doors off the grand tours in those first years, but he kept plugging away, finishing fifth at the 2003 Giro and 12th in the Tour the same year. His strong 2004 Tour included a superb day on Plateau de Beille, where he finished third behind Armstrong and Ivan Basso. “I almost stayed with them, but (José) Azevedo did one more pull, and I lost the wheel. I couldn’t stay with them,” remembers Totschnig.
“But it was still one of my best days as a pro. It was a big mountain stage, there were millions there to see it. These are the moments you train for as a professional.”Totschnig arrived in Paris in seventh, his first top 10 in the Tour, giving him hope that he’s edging closer to the Tour’s promised land. This year he has honed his form with more altitude training camps in Tenerife, St. Moritz and his native Austria.
As far as Totschnig is concerned, Leipheimer’s arrival is nothing but good news. He sees little chance for ego to get in the way of collective — and individual — goals.
“Now we are two riders who are strong enough to stay with the first guys. We will have more possibilities, and one rider can help the other,” he says. “We saw last year with T-Mobile that when Ullrich was not as strong, Klöden was there and the team still finished on the podium. With Levi on the team, it’s only going to be better for me.”