Levi Leipheimer is counting his blessings Monday after avoiding serious injury when a Spanish driver plowed into him during a Sunday-afternoon training ride in Spain’s Basque Country.
The American star knows he’s lucky to be alive and to have otherwise avoided serious injuries in the high-speed accident.
Leipheimer was on a two-hour training ride ahead of Monday’s start of the Vuelta al País Vasco when disaster struck: a car drove directly into him at full speed as he was riding on the right side of the shoulder on a Spanish road.
Leipheimer recounted the accident to VeloNews in an exclusive interview Monday morning before catching a flight back to the United States.
VeloNews: It sounds like you dodged a bullet with the accident, what happened?
Levi Leipheimer: I could be dead, for sure. I flew into Bilbao on Saturday night before the Vuelta al País Vasco. I wanted to get here early, relax and go for a ride. I was returning from a light ride, about two hours, at about 12:30. I was using my (smart phone) to find some good roads. I was about five kilometers from the hotel. At that point, I was on a big road, with a big shoulder. There was a white line and I was over on the far right side of the shoulder. I was just riding along. I didn’t hear or see anything. The impact was straight in from behind.
VN: Did the driver brake or try to avoid you?
LL: I don’t even know how to describe it. All a sudden a car comes underneath you. He didn’t brake at all. I was thrown to the ground. I sat up against the guardrail. I saw my bike was completely smashed. If you see how carbon fiber is when it breaks, it’s pretty graphic. I took three-five-10 seconds, and then I started to panic. You realize you’ve just been plowed through by a car.
VN: Were you riding alone? With teammates?
LL: I was alone. I was the only rider from our team out for a ride. I was in a panic state. I was kind of shocked. Another car stopped to help. Eventually the driver came back. He was an old man. It took him a long time to realize what had happened. I didn’t know what to do. I was asking those people to take me to my hotel. I didn’t know the name. I just told them I would show them where it was. I was panicking. I wanted to put my bike in the car, but they said there was no room for it. I was stressing about that, ha! I had my phone and I was trying to call some of the guys from the team, but I couldn’t get through. The woman spoke good English. I was lucky to have them there. Those people were heroes. I was begging them to take me to the team hotel. I was panicked. It’s scary, it’s really scary.
VN: Do you have any idea how the impact occurred? Did he impact you at full speed?
LL: I cannot describe it. He hit me on the very front right corner of the car; he came in straight from behind. I was really to the far right side of the road. He hit me on the edge of his right-front bumper. He didn’t brake. It was a pretty big road, I would imagine he was moving at least 80kph. After he hit me, he locked it up. He skidded down the road a good 100 meters. I have no idea how far (I went). It was more like he took the bike out from under me. I did get thrown forward because the bike was behind me.
VN: It’s amazing you were able to more or less walk away from it. Any idea of the extent of your injuries?
LL: I really don’t know yet. It definitely feels like it could be the fibula (leg bone below knee). There’s at the very least a very big contusion on the muscle, because the leg is twice the [normal] size. I cannot walk. I cannot put any weight on it. I need to get home and have some tests done. I am in a wheel chair now at the airport in Bilbao.
VN: So did you spend the night in a Spanish hospital? How did they treat your injuries?
LL: They really didn’t do much yesterday. I am not sure if it’s because of the crisis (ed. note: Spain has 23.6% unemployment nationwide), but all they did was an echo-scan. They didn’t even do X-rays. They do not give you painkillers or anything. The team doctor here, who is also Spanish, said it was because of the crisis, that they are cutting back. The team really took good care of me. I was thankful on a day as big as Flanders for the team and how well they treated me.
VN:So you’re in good enough condition to return to the U.S.?
LL: In Spain, you know how it is when you go to the hospital, you wait an hour, then the doctor sees you, then you wait another hour, then there’s a test, then you wait another hour and go back to the doctor, who tells you there’s nothing really wrong with you. I need to get an X-ray. I am flying back this morning (Monday morning). I have a flight; Bilbao-Munich-San Francisco. I know people are going to raise the topic of flying right away, but the team doctors have taken precautionary measures, with anti-coagulants and compression.
VN:What was going through your mind when you were sitting there on the road after being hit by that car?
LL: It’s hard to believe. It’s the first time I’ve ever had a run-in with a car. The weird thing is, I had thought to myself just about one minute before the accident, that I needed to get off that road. I had thought that before on other roads with a lot of traffic, so that wasn’t the first time I had those thoughts. We are always taking our lives into risk when we ride the bike. But the older you get, the more you’ve seen people get hurt or worse, you’re more aware of those things. I have those thoughts more and more. That’s why you always have to ride with a helmet, with ID. You have to be careful all the time. I think I will start riding with a light during the day.
VN:Did you speak with the driver who hit you? Did the police get involved?
LL: They did get involved. I was questioned by them. They found the driver; he had given his name and number to the family who stopped to help me. I shouldn’t say too much about it. I will say he was pretty old.
VN:What’s going through your mind now as you sit in a Spanish airport? Are you still in a state of shock?
LL: I am happy to be alive — absolutely. At first I was in shock. Then I was thinking, ‘now I am going to be hurt for the race.’ Then I thought, ‘maybe I cannot race at all.’ Then I thought, ‘I could be dead right now.’ I can feel for all those people who have been involved in accidents.
VN:It’s probably too early to think about this, but do you any guesses on how this might impact your racing schedule?
LL: As far as we can tell, the worse case scenario is that the fibula is cracked, which isn’t so bad. I can still ride, from what I hear. I have spoken with a few team doctors, to get some opinions from a few people in the peloton. The consensus is that I have got a huge hematoma on my calf. I need to get back to the U.S. and get some more tests done. There’s nothing definitive now My leg is twice its normal size and it’s hard as a rock.
VN:What did the doctors tell you about traveling so soon?
LL: I made sure and asked, ‘Can I fly tomorrow? Is it safe?’ I talked to four or five doctors about it, and they all agreed with what they’ve given me it will be ok for the flight. The leg is in compression. I am flying business class, so hopefully I can walk around a little bit. Knock-on-wood.
VN:It seems like you’ve been cursed since starting the season off with a bang, winning at San Luis. It appears that you have great legs, but you had the bad crashes at Paris-Nice and then the weather wiped out Catalunya?
LL: The weather definitely ruined the race at Catalunya. When I was riding yesterday, I was feeling so good. I really felt good and I was looking for the Basque Country race. The important thing is that I am alive. I will start training for California, but I cannot put too much pressure on Cali. I don’t know if I will be able to get into shape. I will definitely try. I definitely feel strong this year. I worked really hard over the winter.
VN:Things seem to be coming together well at Omega Pharma-Quick Step?
LL: I am happy with the new team. Everyone on the team is motivated and working in the right direction. Everyone wants to win. That’s obvious. It was really cool to see Tom (Boonen) back at his best level after what he’s been through. He’s really a great guy and I’ve gotten to know him better. I am really happy for him.