Astana’s Levi Leipheimer broke his wrist during this year’s Tour de France, and returned to his home in California to recover. He was soon back on the bike training — although it was often the time trial bike so he wouldn’t stress his wrist.
Now, the man who took third at the 2007 Tour de France prepares to return to racing at the Tour of Missouri, which he last raced in 2007. VeloNews caught up with him to get his thoughts on the 2009 edition.
VeloNews: 2008 Tour of Missouri winner Christian Vande Velde says you are the big favorite.
Levi Leipheimer: Ha. Yeah, nice try, Christian. I would have to say maybe Dave Zabriskie is the big favorite. He just won the national time trial title, it looks like he’s going well. I could see the race coming down to the TT. Or it could be a breakaway before the TT and then it could come down to the best time trial rider in that breakaway. Maybe everyone follows DZ and Christian around, and a break gets up the road with some other guys, and then they fight out the overall. But I think Dave is the big favorite for the TT.
VN: In 2007 Hincapie won the race, and he was your teammate, and just like at Georgia that year, the break went clear and winner came from that break, even though you showed you were strongest in the TT both times. Something you’ll try to avoid?
LL: There was no disappointment. The team won. Sure, I didn’t win the overall, but I think I showed that I took it seriously, I was prepared, and I was ready to step up if it all came down to the TT. No disappointment. If the team wins and we pull it off, I can appreciate that. I think what goes around comes around, and you can’t win them all.
VN: Right after you broke your wrist at the Tour you mentioned Missouri as potential objective.
LL: I mainly just wanted to make sure I could get back to racing form before the end of the year, mainly for next year, because it’s nice to get into shape again, so it’s not such a big hill to climb back to fitness. I don’t like to let myself get too out of shape, because you spend a lot of energy getting back. You have to take time off and recover, but I don’t like to put bike away for a few months and get totally out of shape, because you pay for it when it’s time to get serious again
VN: How’s the wrist? Did it play a factor in skipping nationals?
LL: All the doctors said six weeks was the minimum time before it was stable, and six weeks was the day before the time trial. To tell you the truth I didn’t have much strength in my wrist a week ago. Sounds weird, but it feels much better now. Right on the line, and there’s no reason to push it. But the TT position was the first thing I could do on the trainer. I spent a lot of time on my TT bike. The hardest thing was going uphill, hard, out of the saddle. Or sprinting in the drops, you are pulling a lot with wrist. That took time.
VN: What can you say about the team Astana is bringing to Missouri?
LL: Well we have the Tour de Georgia winner in Brakjovic, we have Popovych, we all know who that is, Gregory Rast, who rode the Tour this year, and Tomas Vaitkus, who rode the Tour for us in 2007. And then there are a couple of young Kazakhs coming as well.
VN: Does the terrain — rolling hills, rather than sustained climbs — suit a different kind of rider?
LL: I don’t know the course personally, but I can imagine the short, steep rollers, they just wear on you. It’s like someone taking a hammer to your legs all day, finally people’s legs just break, and eventually something can get away because people are hurting, and when someone makes that 1,000th acceleration, people just decide not to participate, it can get dangerous, it can split and the race will open up.
VN: Last year Columbia was attacking all day over the rollers the day after Vande Velde took yellow, and he called it one of the hardest days of his career.
LL:No one is expecting it to be easy. I don’t think we’re going as big favorites, despite what Christian said. But we’re going to race. We will be well represented.
VN: How much does the presence of Cavendish in the race benefit a team like Astana that can win the overall? It seems Columbia controlling the race works to your advantage.
LL:If we felt like we had the best time trialist by far, it would be nice, but I don’t know if anyone can say that. Clearly Dave is going well, and Christian can time trial, but there are other people in the race who can time trial. I don’t think we’re necessarily so keen on keeping it together every day. Popo or Jani could get into a break, and they can each hold their own in a time trial. If it’s a combination where Popo is off the front with so and so, and he can clearly beat him in the time trial, that’s good for us.
VN: Yeah, but you will be the only person in the race who medaled at the Olympics a year ago in the time trial.
LL: Yeah, but this is a chance for others on the team to get their opportunity and make the race happen for themselves. If it comes down to the TT and we are all on the same time because Cavendish won the first three or four stages, I will give it my best shot, as will Jani and everyone else on the team. But we’re definitely not going to try to keep it together, not just for me.
VN: What do you remember from 2007?
LL:I remember the tough Branson time trial, and I remember one day with some climbs, but the rest was pretty flat. I’ve heard about stage 3, where there is 6,000 feet of climbing on 114 miles, if the hills are just the right length, it could be a constant sprint up each roller. That can really hurt.