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By Andrew Hood
Levi Leipheimer’s trophy collection improved dramatically in 2007 with some quality wins that included his first-ever Tour de France stage victory, the Tour podium with third, the overall at the Tour of California and the U.S. national pro title.
The return to the friendly vibe at Discovery Channel seemed to make all the difference for the 34-year-old. All the pieces came together as the Montana-native was back with the U.S. team after racing six seasons for foreign teams.
Following Discovery Channel boss Johan Bruyneel to the new-look Astana team will keep Leipheimer in the familiar – and winning – team ambiance, where he’ll join defending Tour champ Alberto Contador with a two-year contract.
Leipheimer hopes to hit the repeat button in 2008, with the Tour of California, the Tour de France and a chance at Olympic gold in Beijing top his list of goals for the upcoming season.
VeloNews caught up with Leipheimer from his home in California as he reflected on his successful season, his move to Astana and why he works so hard on animal welfare. Here are excerpts from the interview:
VeloNews.com: You had a great 2007 season, a real break-through season, what changed for you?
Levi Leipheimer: It was my best season for sure. I can’t call it a breakthrough, though. A lot came together, from being back at Discovery Channel and with Johan and everyone involved there. That was the best situation for me. My time trial position improved greatly. My training has gotten better working with Max Testa. A lot of things fell into place.
VN.com: You had a lot of highlights in 2007, but was the Tour stage win and podium the best?
LL: That 24-hour period of winning the time trial and standing on the podium in Paris on the Champs-Elysées. Put all that together and I would classify that as the best moment. It was something I dreamed about since I was 13 when I saw the Tour for the first time. Being part of that is hard to describe. I just knew I was going to be there someday, to stand on the biggest podium in the world. It’s something I wish I could download in my brain. We had a small celebration with the team on the night after the time trial and then we had the official party in Paris.
VN.com: In that final time trial, you won your first Tour stage, but you also almost won the entire Tour. If that time trial had been five kilometers longer, it might have been you in yellow; did you ever imagine that scenario?
LL: I was very confident that I would end up third and I knew I had a possibility of jumping up a place. I didn’t think about winning the Tour until crossing the line. Before Cadel (Evans) crossed the line, someone from TV said, ‘hey, it’s really close between all three of you.’ I knew I had won the stage but it was hard to focus on that. When Cadel came in to beat me (on GC), I really wanted Alberto to win. I didn’t experience any relief until after he crossed the line.
VN.com: You never seemed to have that great time trial performance at the Tour as you’ve had in other races, what was the difference this year to deliver the win?
LL: To win a time trial, you go as fast as you can, to do your best. My goal is always to win. I had special legs that day. It seems like I’ve always had great time trials in other races. This year I finally did in the Tour, but before I was up against riders like Lance Armstrong or Jan Ullrich. It’s only the last couple of years that I had real opportunities to win. The first time trial wasn’t great. It was in the rain and I didn’t start well. I wasn’t on my best form yet. We had some easy days before it, some nervous day. I need the race to be hard before I can do well.
VN.com: Looking back, you lost second place by a 10-second penalty for a bidon pull after losing your chain on a critical descent, does that rankle you now?
LL: It’s an expensive penalty, but it doesn’t really bug me. Everyone can look through a race and see where you lost and won seconds here and there. That one stands out a little more than the other mistakes you make along the way. The problem was that normally that sort of thing, they overlook. If you have a problem with your bike and it’s not your fault, normally that’s not a problem. It was on TV and I suppose they felt like they had to do something.
Back with Bruyneel
VN.com: You’ve recently confirmed that you’re staying with Johan Bruyneel in the move to Astana, why was that the right fit for you?
LL: I was very happy to be with Discovery Channel in 2007 and essentially it’s the same situation for me. I’m happy to be where I am at and I don’t have to change my situation. This is the best team I’ve ridden with in my career. Also, I am really looking forward to working with Alain Gallopin. He’s a great guy and it was really a coup for Johan to get him. He’s a well-respected director.
VN.com: What do you know of Gallopin as a director?
LL: I’ve never worked with him before, but there have been circumstances in the races where he’s shown his class. This year late in the Dauphiné, in a stage that went over a climb and a very dangerous descent to the finish, I flatted at the top of the climb and I got on the wheel of (Sergio) Paulinho trying to come back to the group. I was coming through the cars and most sport directors give you room, but he went above and beyond that. He gave me the help I needed to get back safely. He did not have to do that. When someone does something like that, you take note and you appreciate it. It shows his character.
VN.com: How well were you informed on Bruyneel’s plans to go to Astana?
LL: He told me very early that he was considering it. He didn’t tell me to wait around, but he did say before I did anything to talk to him. I took my time (choosing a team). I had a couple of great offers and I was close to another team. I guess that Johan confirmed with Astana just in time for me. I was very happy with what happened this year and to be back with Johan for the 2007 season. To have that same situation going into the next two years is the ideal. It was an easy choice to make.
No rivalry with Contador
VN.com: You will be sharing the spotlight with Contador, do you see any rivalry between yourselves going into the Tour?
LL: It’s pretty easy, really. We’ll both have equal chances. If Alberto is stronger than me or if I am stronger than Alberto, we’re there to support each other. The ultimate goal is that the team wins the Tour de France. We’re very confident that Astana will do that.
VN.com: Contador will go into the Tour with all the pressure as defending champ, with that help you in the sense of having less pressure on you?
LL: That’s pretty obvious, he’s the defending Tour champion. His life has changed dramatically. Saying that, we also have to say he’s a real champion. He has all the qualities of the great riders who’ve won multiple Tours.
VN.com: In what ways?
LL: He’s very confident, he’s not afraid of risking. He’s young, he has nothing to lose. He’s not afraid to lose the race by attacking. Plus, he has the legs to attack. We’ve seen those legs. He has incredible acceleration, that’s something that I don’t have. I have to be more conservative and be smarter about my tactics. He went into that last time trial with a lot of pressure and he came out with the win. That shows a lot.
VN.com: You’ve always said you keep improving little by little, do you feel now you’re at your peak or do you still see room for improvement?
LL: I have more to improve on. My characteristics as a rider only get better with age. I’m not a sprinter who’s losing my speed. My endurance gets better, I’m more confident, I’m smarter. All those qualities keep improving with age. I’ve always been consistent and I always knew I would start to win. And when I did, I started to win a lot. There’s no reason that cannot continue.
View of Tour changes
VN.com: What’s your first impression of the Tour route for 2008?
LL: I’ve not had a chance to look at in detail, but from what I’ve seen of the layout and the length of the time trials and the climbing stages, it’s a great course for our team. One thing I would start off saying is that I was disappointed to see there’s no team time trial. Now that I’m on a team like Astana, we would be one of the favorites to win and now they don’t have it. I’ve always wanted to win the team time trial. It’s still a great course for Alberto and I. We’re really looking forward to next year’s Tour. We’ll have the defending champion with Alberto, we’ll have two guys who can win the Tour, it will be huge.
VN.com: How do you see the elimination of the prologue?
LL: It’s a chance to gain a few seconds on some dangerous rivals, but it’s really not that big of a deal. It seems like they want to see the jersey to change a lot in the first part of the Tour.
VN.com: Of the two time trials, the longer one is on the penultimate stage, that would seem to favor you because you seem to always get better in the final part of the Tour?
LL: It is better for me. I always do get better in the third week, especially in this year’s Tour, so in a way, that’s really good for me. I’m looking forward to try to win that time trial again. The first one is also very important to try to establish my position in the classification. The first one is to show you’re a favorite and the second one is where you could win the Tour.
VN.com: There are some interesting climbing stages this year, which ones do you know?
LL: The only summit finish I know is L’Alpe d’Huez. Super-Besse, Hautacam and Prato Nevoso are all new. We will be doing some trips to take a look at the climbs. We always look forward to it. It’s a lot of fun to ride the course beforehand. We have a lot of the course to look at this year, actually.
VN.com: The elimination of time bonuses is also a new twist, is that something that could influence the GC?
LL: If you’re winning mountain stages, you want the time bonuses. It’s a bit fairer I suppose without two long time trials. If you finish on the wheel, you still lose eight seconds with the time bonus, so I don’t know if that makes sense. It’s important that it’s the same for everyone.
VN.com: Organizers seemed to have listened and have shortened transfers between stages, is that something you applaud?
LL: Greatly – the Tour de France is an extremely hard sport event. If they make us jump on a plane or drive 200 kilometers, sometimes before and after stages, it’s just not right. It’s good that they’ve taken into consideration how hard the race is, not only on the riders, but on the staff, too, because they have to drive these distances. If we can save our energy not driving and getting on airplanes, we’re better off for the racing. That’s what counts and the racing will be better. The riders will be happier if we don’t have to do these ridiculous transfers.
VN.com: Next year is also an Olympic year, how important will that be for you?
LL: If I were to name three goals for next year, it would be the Tour of California, the Tour and the Olympics. I’ve already met the qualification and the great part about the date is that it doesn’t require any special training. It’s two weeks after the Tour. All I need to do is rest and take care of myself. That’s what makes it so appealing. Both courses are tough. I might try to go in December.
VN.com: Will there be any major changes in your schedule?
LL: No, I will do the same races; California, Georgia, the Dauphiné and the Tour. I haven’t set the final schedule yet, but the basics won’t change at all.
Work with animals
VN.com: On a personal note, you and your wife, Odessa, work closely with animal welfare, tell us more about what you’ve been doing recently?
LL: Odessa works with a group called, ‘A Leg Up Rescue,’ and we just had a fund-raiser dinner last week and we ended up raising quite a bit of money. Odessa and I are both personally deeply committed to helping animals. We have animals through our house non-stop. Odessa has rescued upwards of hundreds of animals in Spain and hundreds here in California. We both feel strongly about that. We donate a lot of time and money to rescuing and helping abandoned or abused animals.
VN.com: Why is it so important for you?
LL: It’s a big part of why we’re together. We’re both animal lovers. We just feel that animals deserve a chance. A lot of people do great things for great causes, this is just our cause. This is what we identify with. I will give you an example. On the day I won the time trial, Odessa was going for a ride in Girona in the morning before taking a plane to Paris and she heard some whimpering. She found a garbage bag on the side of the road and it was tied off and there were six puppies inside that were a day or two old. She took them and bottle-fed them for a month before we found a rescue organization in Barcelona to take them before we left for the States.
VN.com: How many pets do you personally own?
LL: We have three dogs and we don’t know how many cats we have. Some are just outside cats that live near our home. We have some houses for them and they can come and go as they wish. Our dogs are small and we can bring them on the plane with us. It’s good karma and that’s why I won the time trial. It’s a huge part of our lives. We feel good about it. I like to think we can make a difference.