By Andrew Hood
Levi Leipheimer will be starting next month’s Vuelta a España, but he was never planning on it.
The 29-year-old designed his entire season at arriving at the 2003 Tour de France in top form with eyes of making a run for the top 5 overall. But Leipheimer’s season was turned upside down when he went crashing down in the finish-line pile-up coming into Meaux in the Tour’s first road stage.
The highly-criticized finish – with a sharp downhill funneling into a narrow twisting run to the finish line – spelled doom for Leipheimer and Rabobank teammate Mark Lotz. CSC’s Tyler Hamilton also crashed, fracturing his right clavicle.
While Hamilton was able to carry on, Leipheimer wasn’t so lucky. He fractured a bone in his pelvis and damaged muscles in left leg, making it impossible to walk, let alone race in cycling’s most grueling event.
Late last week VeloNews European correspondent Andrew Hood caught up with Leipheimer who was at his European home base in Girona, Spain. Leipheimer recounts his Tour ambitions, the spill and the painful recovery.
VeloNews: How has the recovery come along?
Leipheimer: It was bad and it wasn’t bad. I still some pain down there. It’s taken a long time to get over that part.
VN: Can you describe the crash? How did it happen?
LL: It was kind of surreal. The last 500 meters that day were really loud, with a lot of crowds. Normally, you hear a crash. That’s the reason was so many guys went down. It was so loud and we came around a blind turn and you couldn’t hear a thing. Guys just kept coming and coming. It was kind of a bend. When I came around the corner and it was just a wall of riders in front of me. There was nothing I could do. There were guys on left and right side. I didn’t have time to hit my brakes. Normally, you have time to skid or you can get around it.
VN: The finishing straight was very dangerous, coming down a steep hill and then into a tight funnel. I remember when we drove over that finish. We thought, ‘for sure there’s going to be a crash here.’
LL: It’s ridiculous. They make us wear helmets, then we have to deal with a finish like this. It’s hypocritical. The first day of the Tour, everyone is so strong. You got the best teams, the best riders, everyone is running on full adrenaline, going 65 kph. And then in the last 10 kilometers, there are round-abouts, turns and the last kilometer has that. It’s BS. They make us wear helmets, then they do that to us.
VN: How did you fall?
LL: It happened so fast. All I remember is seeing riders on the ground and falling to my left side. I didn’t land on my hipbone, but on backside of my pelvis. I hit my gluteus pretty hard, which depressed into a bone in my pelvis. It’s the bone that you’re sitting on the saddle, on the left side. There are two loops that come to the bottom part of the pelvis.
VN: Can you describe at the moment after the crash what went through your mind?
LL: You have so much adrenaline at a time like that. I was thinking, ‘Dammit, I just crashed’ and thinking how that’s going to screw you with your whole system, how it takes a few days to get over it. I went to stand up and to get back on the bike and remember not being able to stand up. I just couldn’t get up. I didn’t have the wind knocked out of me, but it was just kind of weird. My teammate Grischa (Niermann) was trying to get the bikes untangled and I remember watching and thinking, ‘I should try to help him,’ but I couldn’t.
VN: I heard that teammates had to push you across?
LL: He and Michael (Boogerd) pushed me across the line. All the muscles in my leg were torn. I had a big hemotoma. All the damage was on the inside of my leg, on the opposite side I fell on. It was pretty strange. I couldn’t lift my leg. Then I was like, ‘This is going to be painful when I get back on the bike. This is going to take a little time to get over.’ On the bus, I took a shower and I was not in a good mood because I was hurting so much. I was still thinking, ‘Dammit, this is going to set you back.’ Then I tried to get dressed and I couldn’t bend over. One of the race doctors did an exam and suggested I go to the hospital. I was thinking, ‘I don’t have time to go to the hospital. I have to get massage and prepare’ and that’s when I realized how serious this was.
VN: Being at the hospital must not have been a pleasant experience. What happened there?
LL: By the time we arrived at the hospital, I knew I wouldn’t be starting tomorrow. I couldn’t walk anymore, let alone race a bike. I got an X-ray and at first it seemed OK. Then we had to do more X-rays. The doctor said it’s fractured. I’m no expert at looking at X-rays but I couldn’t see it. I asked the doctor again and he said it’s definitely fractured. It’s not major, not small. It wasn’t coming apart, it wasn’t broken or shattered. When I fell most of my abductors were ripped and I couldn’t lift my left leg. It wasn’t a question of being able to even walk. The muscles weren’t working.
VN: What were you thinking then, your Tour was in ruins?
LL: You just want to go away for awhile. You just try to detach yourself from what’s going on. I stayed overnight in the hospital. Mark Lotz (a Rabobank teammate who also crashed out) was in the same room with me. I flew back to Girona the next day. I left the hospital in a wheel chair.
VN: How long were you off the bike, the recovery?
LL: I was on the couch for two weeks. I had 12 days of nothing to do to let the bone heal. The first day on the trainer, 10 minutes was all I could do. I was hurting too bad. Then the next day was better. I could ride 30 minutes, then one hour. Moving around really helped. The first day outside on the bike was 16 days after I crashed, on the second rest day of the Tour.
VN: Were you watching the Tour during that time?
LL: I started watching it once it got to the mountains. The first couple of days I didn’t want to see it. The worst part was that I rode half the Tour course before the race started. I wanted to see what would happen in those stages that we rode, just trying to imagine where I would have been. I was trying to watch and still learn a little bit, see some things that were going on.
VN: How difficult was the stress? Is this just part of bike racing or was there some regret, thinking that you put your whole season on the Tour and you crashed out in the first stage?
LL: It’s part of bike racing. I just tried to forget about it. It’s not something you want to think about over and over again. Like in the prologue, I had a lot of nerves. I always describe that as like a downhill ski event. You’re just trying to stay upright. The main thing is you don’t want to crash. I was going well in prologue. I finished 12th but I felt like I could have gone a lot longer at that speed.
VN: What were honest expectations for the Tour? Your public statements were that you wanted to improve on your eighth-place finish from last year, but did you expect more from how you were feeling before the Tour?
LL: I just wanted to improve. I was hoping for a top-five. The goal was to improve from last year. You can’t predict how fast the other guys are. No one expected (Haimar) Zubeldia to be so strong, for example.
Watch for the second part of the interview later this week on VeloNews.com when Leipheimer talks about the upcoming Vuelta a España.