By Andrew Hood
Levi Leipheimer will return to the Vuelta a España next month for the first time since his breakthrough performance in 2001, when he came out of nowhere to finish third overall.
Going into the Vuelta that year, Leipheimer had never ridden a three-week grand tour, but became the first American to finish on the Vuelta podium with consistent strength in the mountains and the time trials. Now he returns to Spain��s grand tour, but in very different circumstances.
Following his unfortunate crash in the first stage of the 2003 Tour deFrance (see “Interview: Leipheimer talks about his oh-so-short Tour“), Leipheimer had to re-adjust his racing schedule to prepare for an assault on the season’s final grand tour.
VeloNews European correspondent Andrew Hood caught up with Leipheimer last week to discuss the pressures he’s facing going into the Sept. 6 start of the Vuelta. Here are excerpts from the interview:
VeloNews: Your first race back from your injury was the Regio Tour (in Germany), how did that go?
Leipheimer: I was so tired, but I made it. I came back really fast and pushed it hard. I made a big improvement, and then I paid for it. Now I am able to train again. I can train 100 percent now, but my form’s not 100 percent. I can build it, but I’m not anywhere near where I was before the Tour.
VN: Were you planning on doing the Vuelta this year?
LL: Not at all. After the injury, we decided I’d race the Vuelta. I thought, ‘Oh, now I’ve got to get ready again.’ Then I got excited about it. I really like the course. The Vuelta is such a great race. It’s so much more open. The Tour is so controlled and dominated by the big teams. At the Tour, you just try to hang on. The Vuelta is much more open.
VN: What are your expectations for the Vuelta?
LL: I don’t know what to expect. I’m not back to the form I had before the Tour. I don’t know if I’ll get there before the race. I’ll do the best with what I have right now. There are a lot of expectations for me to do well. I can only get so good, so fast. I was starting from zero at the end of July, so we’ll see. Maybe I can get better at the end of the Vuelta. The injury, the tissue damage, sitting on the couch for 12 days, barely moving, you pretty much lose everything.
VN: Was it hard to change focus from the Tour to now thinking about the Vuelta?
LL: Yes, it was. It’s been hard ever since the crash mentally to keep myself sane because when I got back from Germany (from the Regio Tour), I was really, really tired. It was so bad I thought I had a virus and I underwent blood tests to see if anything was wrong. That’s how tired I was. I went there fresh and I dug, dug really deep. There’s only three weeks to the Vuelta, so it’s hard. I tried to do what’s right and take care of myself. I feel good now and I can train hard without over doing it. I went to look at the stages of the Vuelta, but I stopped after two days because I was so tired. I rode the first mountain stage in the Pyrenees (Stage 7 to Cauterets), it’s like a mini-Alpe d’Huez. It’s brutal, but I was so tired I couldn’t keep doing it.
VN: The 2001 Vuelta was a breakthrough race for you, but now you’re coming back with very different expectations. How are you dealing with that?
LL: It’s a lot different, a much different approach. In 2001, I didn’t have any pressure or expectations at all. I had nothing to lose, which is a much better standpoint to race. Now I have a lot of expectations to do well.
VN: Was the 2001 Vuelta your best form in your career? Were you stronger there than the 2002 Tour?
LL: I was time trialing better at the Vuelta, but I was climbing better at the Tour last year. The stage to La Plagne, that was the hardest race I’ve ever done in my career, and I was sixth there. That was good for me. In the Vuelta and the sensations I had in the time trials, they were much better. I had never gone that fast as I did in the final time trial in Madrid.VN: We heard during the Tour that Rabobank officials said you must prove yourself at the Vuelta. Dutch journalists quoted Theo de Rooy saying that you had to show you’re strong to earn a place on the team for next year, what’s your reaction to that?LL: I read it and I called Theo and ask him what was up. He told me it was the Dutch press blowing things out of proportion. I have to agree. It’s just what the Dutch journalists do. They like to do things in the tabloid style and stir things up. They said something like, ‘Now he’ll get another chance at the Vuelta,’ and they took part of a quote and make it work in a headline.VN : Are you looking to stay with Rabobank or head to another team?LL: They don’t want to do anything until after the Vuelta. With ONCE and Banesto going away, there are a lot of riders looking for a job. That’s the problem. I’m pretty confident I’m going to have a job. That’s not the worry, that’s just the way the market goes. I will just do my best. I’m not going to make any excuses, but it’s not easy to come back from what happened in such a short period of time. I want to prove that I am a good rider because I can show that I can make a big improvement in a short time. That shows a lot in itself. VN: Will you ride the world’s now?LL: Maybe. It’s definitely more of a possibility. USA Cycling has e-mailed me and asked me if I wanted to go, so it seems like I might do them now.