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By Andrew Hood
Levi Leipheimer huddled against the cold wind coming off the Atlantic Ocean at a Gerolsteiner team presentation Friday afternoon. He wouldn’t shake hands with journalists who came for an interview.
With Leipheimer starting the Tour in his best condition ever, there’s no jinxing the form now.
Sitting on a beach with the Pont de Noirmoutier towering overhead — the same bridge he and the 188 other starting riders will tackle in Saturday’s 19km time trial from Fromentine to Noirmoutier-en-l’Ile – a leaner, meaner Leipheimer quietly puts himself among the top-line contenders.
“Yes, I am more ambitious,” Leipheimer said. “I wasn’t satisfied with my Tour last year. It just opened up my eyes, I realized I had to work harder.”
After two top-10 finishes in three starts, Leipheimer enters this year’s Tour with eyes on the final podium.
Last fall, Leipheimer began a new collaboration with former Motorola team doctor Dr. Max Testa, who helped fine-tune his training schedule, giving Leipheimer precise measurements to aim for on his power meter during training rides.
“I know what I have to do,” Leipheimer said. “It’s a training program more specifically tailored for me. It’s helping me getting closer to the goals I want to achieve.”
For the first time, those goals include openly speaking about the Tour podium. In his first three Tour starts, Leipheimer would hedge, insisting that his first attempts at the Tour were about gaining experience and learning what it takes to rub shoulders with the likes of Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrich.
“I’m coming here in great shape,” he said. “The past three years I wasn’t at my best at the start of the Tour. I had always gotten better, but I can’t do that. I’m definitely my strongest.”
To nudge closer to the podium, Leipheimer wanted to lose weight, so he’s not eaten sugar, fats, desserts or even taken a sip of beer or other forms of alcohol in four months.
As a result, he’s shaved three kilos off his race weight, slimming down to a svelte 59.5kg, the lightest he’s ever been for a Tour.
In March, he traveled with Lance Armstrong, Sheryl Crow and his wife, Odessa Gunn, for a 10-day training camp to the Canary Islands.
Leipheimer said the new training program coupled with his weight loss has sharpened his strength in both the mountains and the time trials.
During the recent Dauphiné Libéré, he wore the leader’s jersey for two days, just missed victory in both time trials, rode with the strongest in the mountains and finished third overall.
It was a positive confirmation ahead of the Tour. Still, he realizes he let an opportunity to win the race slip away. It’s another lesson learned on the rough-and-tumble road of life as a professional cyclist.
“I learned a lot at the Dauphiné,” he said. “I should have won that race, but I also confirmed I was strong. Now with a bit of luck, I don’t see why I cannot stand on the podium in Paris.”