By Andrew Hood
The harder and longer the race, the more Levi Leipheimer likes it. And the 30- year-old Rabobank rider thinks he’ll really like the 2004 Tour de France. With the first serious mountains not coming until the climbing finish to La Mongie in stage 12, Leipheimer figures he’ll be firing on all cylinders just in time for the Tour’s decisive moments.
“Each grand tour I’ve done, I’ve always been better in the third week,” Leipheimer told VeloNews. “It’s a strong point for me and I like it if the final week of the Tour is the most difficult. It favors me.”
Leipheimer has made a mark for himself with his strong finishes at grand tours. He earned his breakthrough 2001 Vuelta a España podium thanks to a strong final-day time trial to jump into third, while in his 2002 Tour debut he rebounded nicely in the final week to finish eighth.
“You have to come in fit because the Tour is always difficult, but you want to make sure you have the reserves to go into that third week fresh,” he said. “You still have to have something in the gas tank.”
Of course, Leipheimer is looking forward to just getting to the Tour’s critical later stages. His early departure from the 2003 Tour — when he crashed hard on his hip in the costly stage 1 pileup that also took out Rabobank teammate Marc Lotz and left Tyler Hamilton with a broken collarbone — still weighs heavily on his mind.
“I missed not doing it last year, so I’m excited to get back to the Tour,” Leipheimer said. “There’s no way not to be excited about the Tour. I think every year gets better. I’m more experienced, I’m more comfortable in the peloton, all those things add up.”
SPRING RESULTS HELP REGAIN FOOTING
After a tumultuous 2003 season, Leipheimer was anxious to get the 2004 season off to a good start. Urged by his team to race the Vuelta last September, Leipheimer didn’t have enough time to properly recover from his Tour injury and fared poorly. He lost 13 minutes in the second stage and played second fiddle to teammate Michael Rasmussen, who won a mountain stage and finished in the top 10.
“Last year was a bit of a throwaway year,” Leipheimer said in March. “I’d like to just have a good year and put that behind me.”
Unlike 2003, when Leipheimer trained exclusively for the Tour, only to see the hard work evaporate prematurely, he decided to mark some early-season goals in 2004. He highlighted a run from Paris-Nice in early March through the Tour of the Basque Country in early April to hunt for results. The French race didn’t pan out as well as hoped (he was fifth in the final stage and 22nd overall, seven minutes back), but things turned around nicely two weeks later at the Setmana Catalana. Leipheimer won the “queen stage,” attacking with 4km to go to the Category 1 summit at Port del Comte high in the Catalan Pyrénées in the tour’s fourth day. He came through ahead of eventual overall winner Joaquin Rodriguez (Saunier Duval) to score his first victory since the 2002 Route de Sud. Had it not been for losing 37 seconds in the opening stage to Lloret de Mar, Leipheimer likely would have won the overall.
“I was with the lead group, but this storm blew in and it got very cold. My legs just froze up,” recounts Leipheimer. “We went over a little rise and I just couldn’t stay with them. I was just so cold. I was shaking uncontrollably. Who knows? Maybe I wouldn’t have won that other stage, or maybe I would have won the race.”
His good form ran into a dominant Denis Menchov (Illes Balears) in the Basque Country, where Leipheimer finished a strong fifth overall, 34 seconds back in the highly competitive race.
“I was satisfied with my spring. I was sort of hoping to be top three at one of those races. It should have happened but it didn’t,” Leipheimer said. “I was fifth at Pais Vasco, which is not too far off. Besides Menchov, the rest were very close. He clearly was the best.”
After riding as chief lieutenant to teammates Michael Boogerd and Erik Dekker in the Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège classics, Leipheimer returned to California for his first mid-season trip home since 2002.
“I would have taken a good period of rest with little riding after the classics anyway, so it seemed kind of silly to stay in Spain,” said Leipheimer, who shares his European home base in Gerona with most of the American contingent. “We could go anywhere, so there’s no better place than home.”
Leipheimer rode quietly through the sprint-dominated Tour de Picardie in mid-May and was due to race at the Dauphiné Libéré in June in his final Tour warm-up.
Unlike other Tour contenders, Leipheimer chose not to preview decisive Tour stages in the final weeks before the July 3 start in Liège. He said a team training camp that hit the Alps last year was “too long, a little bit too hard.”
“Sometimes it’s more trouble than it’s worth,” he said. “We’re just going to the team time trial course before Picardie, that’s it. I’ll just train at home.”
Leipheimer says he’ll be Rabobank’s sole GC man, while riders such as Dekker and Boogerd and two-time world champion Oscar Freire, if he decides to race the Tour, will hunt for stage wins.
“We’ll have a team that can win any type of stage,” he said. “I’ll have guys like Marc Lotz, Grischa Niermann and Bram De Groot to help me stay out of trouble. Rasmussen will be able to help me in the mountains.”
How does Leipheimer rate the competition? Like most, he ranks 1997 Tour champion Jan Ullrich (T-Mobile) as Lance Armstrong’s top rival, but Leipheimer also has high esteem for Spanish attacker Iban Mayo (Euskaltel)
“He’s so explosive in the climbs, especially with more Category 1 climbs featured this year instead of the long, long climbs. His explosiveness is unrivaled,” Leipheimer says. “My guess is Mayo can just explode on the climbs. I don’t see anyone else with that kind of acceleration, not Ullrich or Tyler, not even Lance when he wasn’t riding well.”
Leipheimer’s eighth-place debut in 2002 was the third best by an American (Greg LeMond was third in 1984 and Andy Hampsten was fourth in 1986) and his breakthrough third-place in the 2001 Vuelta was the first American podium at the Spanish tour, but he doesn’t like to make outlandish predictions about where he might finish in this year’s tour. Instead, the Montana native wants to quietly edge closer to the Tour’s podium.
“The best hope is to finish on the podium,” Leipheimer said. “My main goal is improving on 2002. That’s all I can imagine right now and hope for the best possible result.”