By Kip Mikler, VeloNews editor, in Pau
With half of his first Tour de France in the rearview mirror, Rabobank team leader Levi Leipheimer says bring on the mountain stages. After an uneventful Stage 10 ride on Wednesday that saw him finish with the main group, 3:57 behind solo winner Patrice Halgand (Jean Delatour), Leipheimer talked about the first real mountain test on Thursday — as well as what he thinks might be an even more interesting day in the Pyrénées on Friday.
“I think of all the mountain stages, it’s probably the least critical,” Leipheimer said of Thursday’s stage 11, which finishes with a Category 1 climb atop La Mongie at nearly 6000 feet. “It is the first one, which makes it important, but I know the final climb isn’t as hard as some of the other ones.”
After rolling across the finish at the Place de Verdun in the city of Pau on Wednesday afternoon, the 28-year-old American said he expects ONCE-Eroski, the team of race leader Igor Gonzales de Galdeano, to control Thursday’s journey into the Pyrénées.
“If I were Lance [Armstrong], I wouldn’t attack tomorrow,” said Leipheimer, who has never ridden the roads of the 158km route from Pau to La Mongie. Instead, he guessed Armstrong might wait until Friday to make his move. Stage 12, Leipheimer pointed out, ends with the more difficult run up to Plateau de Beille, an “above category” climb that comes at the end of a stage that’s 40km longer than Thursday’s.
“If [Armstrong] is strong, he can take out a lot more time on that climb,” Leipheimer added.
While appearing cool and confident in Pau, Leipheimer preferred to keep any predictions for himself close to the vest. “I’ll just be trying to follow,” he said. “To follow as long as I can.”
Rabobank has been aggressive in the flatter stages of the Tour so far — and it already has one stage win after Karsten Kroon’s Bastille Day win in Plouay on Sunday — but with the exception of the time trials, Leipheimer hasn’t had to dig too deep yet.
“Today was actually a pretty easy day,” he said. “[The start] was like, tail wind, trees on either side of the road, big roads and smooth. There were a lot of guys attacking and you kind of get sucked along.”
Wednesday’s comfortable ride into Pau was a welcome break for Leipheimer after a long transfer day Tuesday from the Brittany region to the southwestern tip of France. The term rest day, Leipheimer said, is a misnomer. “It wasn’t a rest at all,” he said. “We had to fly, then ride, then do the interviews and T.V….”
Sitting 24th overall, just 4:39 behind the yellow jersey, Leipheimer has so far managed to dodge the hazards of the Tour, of which this one had plenty. The only real letdown, Leipheimer said, was Monday’s individual time trial. He got off to a slow start and ended up finishing 19th, 2:35 slower than winner Santiago Botero (Kelme-Costa Blanca).
“I was disappointed with it,” Leipheimer said. “I don’t know what it was, I think it’s just a lot of little things that added up. It’s still a solid ride, so I’m not too unhappy and it’s good to know that I can improve. I know I can do better, so….”
With five riders placed precariously within a minute of him on the overall standings — and others in the top-20 who are bound to struggle in the mountains — the man Rabobank recruited to further its GC cause now has a chance to start bumping his way up the charts. The question of just how far he goes — and if he can break out as big of a surprise as he did last year when he finished third at the Vuelta a España in his first grand tour — will start to be answered on Thursday.
So what’s Leipheimer’s prediction? “Ah, you never know until the mountains actually come,” he said with guarded optimism. “Some moments are really good, and some moments — well, whatever. We’ll see. It’s a long race.”