By Andrew Hood
Levi Leipheimer is training this week in Mallorca, Spain, where he’s lining up for his first of two seasons with Gerolsteiner. The German team was looking for another GC rider to complement Georg Totschnig, and Leipheimer was looking for new challenges after three seasons with Rabobank.Working on the upcoming VeloNews “Road Season Preview,” European correspondent Andrew Hood came to Mallorca and spoke with Leipheimer this week as the American pro reflected on his years with Rabobank and what he’s hoping for in 2005 and beyond. Part one of the interview is below; check back tomorrow for part two. Look for a complete profile on Leipheimer and his new team in the upcoming issue of VeloNews.– Editor
VeloNews: How close were you to going back to Postal Service?
Levi Leipheimer: It was very true. It all started happening very early. The basic time line was before the Tour, I started speaking with Johan about going back. It was something I was interested in. I was looking to make a change. In this sport, change is good. It brings new motivation, new perspective. Start over with a clean slate and take all your experiences and put them into a new way of working, a new structure. I was interested, and they were also interested. In the end, I guess they were kind of delaying a little bit, then Gerolsteiner came along. The time line with Discovery just didn’t work out and I didn’t want to pass up Gerolsteiner.
VN: With Discovery, wouold you have been going back as a Tour helper or a leader?
LL: At that time, it was a sort of co-leader. Johan was looking to rebuild the team. Obviously, you cannot replace Lance and everyone knows that, so you have to take a different strategy and build the team around more than one guy. Be aggressive and go for it, and possibly pull something off. The fact that it was taking so long, maybe Lance didn’t know what he wanted to do the following year. And, as it turns out, they had other options with Savoldelli and Popovych.
VN: Gerolsteiner came with an offer that you’d be co-captain of the team?
LL: Yes, with Georg (Totschnig) and I. I know enough to know that two of us who aren’t really clear favorites can go about achieving our goals without stepping on each other’s toes. It’s good in a way 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.
VN: How well did you know the team before? LL: I wouldn’t say I knew them really well, but well enough. I’ve gotten together in November in Germany, when we had a presentation and media day with some meetings. The team that struck me, they’re organized as I expected them to be, but at the same time they’re very relaxed. That’s kind of a unique characteristic to have those two co-exist.
VN: You’ve come a long way since 2001, with the Vuelta breakthrough, now you have two top-10s in the Tour, what kind of things have changed for you since then?
LL: A big change came in 2001, when I went from the USPS, say on the ‘B’ squad, to leading Rabobank at the Tour de France. It was a huge step up, a big learning curve. I was very happy with my first Tour. To come in and be eighth, to prove what I could do, and show promise of what I could do … to do that in your first Tour, I don’t think anybody can ride a perfect first Tour, or be at their best physically, that was a big change there. As well as confirming it again, to be in the top-10 again last year, I’ve learned to put more trust in myself; to be at ease, to be a little more relaxed. I’ve learned to have more self-confidence.
VN: Last year, we talked about changing the schedule, not putting everything on the Tour….
LL: When you put it all on the Tour, you give up the first half of the season, and if you go in there and break your hip on the first day, then the rest of the season is gone too, because by the time you recover, you don’t have enough time to get back to your best, so the whole year is a waste. I wanted to make sure I could ride strong in the spring, to show that I was still there, that I could still do it. But in the end, it just proved to me that me my strength is riding a three-week race, doing a lot of climbing, a lot of time trialing.
VN: So it reaffirmed to you that your specialty is three-week tours?
LL: I’d love to put everything on the Giro or the Vuelta and win a race, because it’s great to win. But then again, it’s great to see how you can do in the biggest, baddest race in the world.
VN: You said you felt better than at three weeks in the Vuelta, but how does that compare to finishing twice in the top-10 in the more demanding Tour?
LL: Maybe I said that at the time, because that was my big breakthrough and I was riding so much better than I ever had before. The first time you do that, you’re on a wave; you’re never going to experience that again. But the Tour is a hard race, there’s no question.
VN: You’ve been twice top-10 in the Tour, does that carry more weight than third at the Vuelta?
LL: No, because I got to stand on the podium, that’s something. When you talk about the physical aspects, if you can put apples to apples, maybe eighth place is a bigger achievement. But I still think standing on the podium is a good thing, it outweighs an eighth place.
VN: How does that podium rate for you?
LL: That was the best moment, I have to admit. Coming down the Champs Elysées the first time was quite special, crossing the line, having all the weight lifted from your shoulders, that’s a nice feeling as well. Knowing that you’ve done a good race. Representing your country at the Olympics was nice.
VN: How have you felt that our personal goals match up against how you were treated by the Dutch press? It seems like you got some bad press during your time at Rabobank from the national media?
LL: I felt the negativity. It caught me by surprise, but I put it in the perspective that they’re just negative, because they’re like that with all their riders if they’re not doing well. If you look at what happened in the Tour last year, the Dutch riders did absolutely nothing and got roasted. I got roasted as well because they said I never attacked, but I look at that as they just don’t understand cycling. In cycling, you have to set goals, those goals aren’t always to step on the highest step of the podium. You have to give yourself realistic goals, and that’s not always winning a race. Sometimes a win is just finishing a race. Cycling is complex. Not everybody sees that.
VN: Within the Rabobank management, did you feel you had the support you needed?
LL: It was always good. They definitely understood that eighth in the Tour was great. They know it’s difficult, there’s a lot of pressure, it’s dangerous, the race itself is so hard. I also felt they were influenced by the media. If the media said that Rabobank needs to attack, all they would care about is attacking and they didn’t care if they finished the race. They just wanted to see someone off the front on the TV cameras, which I can understand, it makes it exciting. When I watch a bike race, I want to see some attacks. As a team, you have a goal and hopefully you have someone who can win the race and you put all your energy into that goal.
Coming Saturday: What Levi learned from Rabobank and what he hopes to do with Gerolsteiner.