Leipheimer confident; Armstrong under fire at pre-race press conference
By Neal Rogers
Anyone wondering how defending Amgen Tour of California champion Levi Leipheimer is approaching this year’s event had those questions put to rest Thursday at a pre-race press conference, where the Astana rider confidently stated that he has returned to win the race for a third time, backed by the strongest team in the race.
“Every time I got on my time trial bike this winter, I thought of the time trial in Solvang,” said Leipheimer of this year’s nine-day race, which starts Saturday with a 2.4-mile prologue in Sacramento. “I did everything possible to know that I am in the best condition to win this race.”
Held in front of a packed house of print and broadcast journalists at the Sheraton Grand Hotel in Sacramento, the press conference was a veritable who’s-who of professional cycling. In fact the group of athletes, race officials and event dignitaries was so large it was split into two rounds.
Riders attending in the first group were 2008’s winningest professional Mark Cavendish (Columbia-Highroad), U.S. national road champion Tyler Hamilton (Rock Racing), 2008 Tour de France champion Carlos Sastre (Cervélo), five-time California stage winner Juan José Haedo (Saxo Bank), three-time world road champion Oscar Freire (Rabobank) and last year’s King of the Mountains Scott Nydam (BMC). Also in attendance was 2008 California women’s criterium winner Brooke Miller (Tibco).
Non-riders at the first conference included Amgen’s Phyllis Piano, AEG Sports president Andrew Messick, Medalist Sports race director Jim Birrell, Versus commentator Phil Liggett and Columbia-Highroad team owner Bob Stapleton.
Filing in for the second press conference was Leipheimer, two-time national road champion and three-time California stage winner George Hincapie (Columbia-Highroad), seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong, Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Slipstream) and 2006 Giro d’Italia champion Ivan Basso (Liquigas).
Also joining the group for the second round was USA Cycling president Steve Johnson and Sacramento mayor and former NBA player Kevin Johnson, who commented on the large media presence in the Sheraton’s conference room.
“I played in an NBA final in 1993, and I’ve never seen so many reporters in a room — until today,” Johnson said.
Missing from the press conference was 2006 Amgen Tour of California champion Floyd Landis. Just prior to the press conference OUCH-Maxxis team owner Greg Raifman alerted the race organization that Landis went down in crash while training earlier Thursday. Though he was not seriously injured, he did require medical attention and is reportedly “bruised up.” Landis is expected to start the prologue Saturday.
Messick was happy to announce that the event, as part of its relationship with Tour de France organizers ASO, will be broadcast in over 200 countries and territories, including 90 that will see some portion of the race coverage live. American cable channel Versus will broadcast live daily coverage of this year’s event.
“We think we’re going to have a fantastic race,” Messick. “We’re covering some new terrain and we think the racing is going to be some of the best racing we’ve ever had. We think this is the best field of professional riders ever to compete in the United States. We’ve had some internal debates around the office as to whether this field is better than that of the 1986 Coors Classic. We think it is.”
Liggett backed that claim up, saying it is, “the best field ever in the U.S., outside of the world championships.”
As expected, Armstrong was the marquee draw of the event, even though his Leipheimer teammate is a two-time champion of the race.
During the press conference Armstrong sat flanked by two of his closest friends in the peloton — Hincapie, his longtime teammate at Motorola, U.S. Postal Service and Discovery Channel and Leipheimer, his current Astana teammate.
Armstrong was questioned on a variety of topics, including his decision to return to racing and his terminated independent anti-doping program with Don Catlin.
However the line of questioning — and answering — became most terse when Irish journalist Paul Kimmage, who called Armstrong “the cancer of the peloton” in a radio interview last year, asked Armstrong how he could compare the return to racing of suspended rider Scot David Millar to those of Floyd Landis and Ivan Basso.
“There is one obvious difference between them,” said Kimmage. “(Landis and Basso) admitted to nothing.”
Armstrong first replied by saying that he found Kimmage’s comments insulting, not only to himself, but to the entire cancer community.
“When I decided to come back, for what I think is a very noble reason, you said, ‘Folks, the cancer has been in remission for four years, but our cancer has now returned,’ meaning me,” Armstrong said to Kimmage. “I am here to fight this disease. I am here so I don’t have to deal with it, so you don’t have to deal with it, none of us have to deal with it, my children don’t have to deal with it. Yet, you said I am the cancer. And the cancer is out of remission. So, it goes without saying that no, we aren’t going to sit down and do an interview. And I don’t think anyone in this room would sit down for that interview. You are not worth the chair you are sitting on with a statement like that with a disease that touches everyone around the world.”
Armstrong then continued by answering Kimmage’s initial question.
“I like Millar, I always have,” Armstrong said. “And he basically got with his hands in the cookie jar, so he admitted to it. But if you look at the case with Floyd Landis, there was some compelling evidence against him, and also some compelling evidence in his favor. As I said in a recent (VeloNews) interview, Floyd Landis can’t confess to anything, because he doesn’t believe he is guilty. Floyd and Ivan are men I respect greatly, as people, as men. And as a society, do we forgive and forget when people serve their sentences? Absolutely. Although I am not sure I would ever forgive you for what you said.”
As far this week’s competition, Leipheimer said his Astana team, which brings riders like Janez Brajkovic, Vladimir Popovych and Chris Horner, has many options.
“How do I put it?” Leipheimer said. “It’s an unbelievable team.”
Among those Leipheimer said he considers his biggest threats are Vande Velde, Landis, and possibly his own teammate.
“This race has usually come down to the time trial, and Lance has been known to win a few time trials in his career,” Leipheimer said. “But it’s February, so no one really knows. People can be better than they thought they were, or worse than they thought they were.”
Of the news of Landis’ crash, Leipheimer asked, “Was he hurt?” Informed that he wasn’t seriously injured, Leipheimer brushed it off. “Ah, he’s a tough guy. He’ll be fine.”
A few riders, including Sastre, Freire, Basso and Hamilton, admitted they were not arriving in California in top condition.
“I am not in the best condition, but we have a strong team that is ready for this race,” Sastre said. Basso, who is focusing his season on the Giro d’Italia, echoed those sentiments.
“I am not necessarily in top form,” Basso said. “But I hope to do as well as possible to prepare for my biggest objectives later in the season.”
Meanwhile Hamilton revealed that his mother is currently battling breast cancer, and that his focus has been elsewhere over the past few months.
“I’ve been back in Boston for most of the last five weeks,” he said. “And the weather out there hasn’t been so good for training, so I have spent three of the last five weeks on the indoor trainer. So I will take myself off of the list of favorites. But we have got some strong riders in guys like Oscar Sevilla, (Enrique) Gutierrez, Francisco Mancebo or Chris Baldwin who can fill that void. I will take it day by day and hope I can do something on a stage. Also we have Freddie Rodriguez, who is going well this year. I think he is a step or two above where he was last year. I will be a domestique this year and I will be happy to do it.”
Overheard“I’ve slept with Paul Sherwin now more than his wife.”
Race announcer Phil Liggett, on his long-term partnership with colleague Paul Sherwin.
“I will wear a cycling jersey and helmet, but I am not putting those bike shorts on. No spandex for me, and I am proud to say that.”
Mayor Kevin Johnson, who will participate in a fun ride over the prologue course Saturday in Sacramento.
“I’ll loan you a pair of shorts. It improves the experience.”
USA Cycling president Steve Johnson, to Mayor Johnson.
“Maybe too many.”
Saxo Bank’s Juan José Haedo, on the number of top sprinters at this year’s Amgen Tour of California.
“This feels like the Tour de France. I’ve never seen so many journalists at any other race, except the Tour.”
2008 Tour de France champion Carlos Sastre, who is racing in the U.S. for the first time.
“We’ve brought a strong team here. It’s basically our Tour de France team.”