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Levi Leipheimer on a new team and new bikes: “Change is good”

After spending the best five years of his career riding for teams run by Johan Bruyneel, American Levi Leipheimer is leaving the Belgian’s leadership to ride for the Omega Pharma-Quick Step team, run by another Belgian, Patrick Lefevere.

After spending the best five years of his career riding for teams run by Johan Bruyneel, American Levi Leipheimer is leaving the Belgian’s leadership to ride for the Omega Pharma-Quick Step team, run by another Belgian, Patrick Lefevere.

Even in a wild transfer season that’s seen sponsors jump teams (Omega Pharma, to Quick Step), successful programs fold for lack of sponsorship (HTC-Highroad), and top programs merge (RadioShack and Leopard-Trek), Leipheimer’s departure from RadioShack came as a surprise.

Along with Chris Horner, Leipheimer was one of the top Americans on a team that, while primarily Belgian in staff personnel, is sponsored by an American company that came on board in 2009 during Lance Armstrong’s comeback.

For 2012, that team’s sponsor and management will join Leopard-Trek riders Fabian Cancellara, Andy and Fränk Schleck, Jakob Fuglsang, Robert Wagner, and Daniele Bennati.

Confirmed to stay from RadioShack side are Horner, Andreas Klöden, Matthew Busche, Nelson Oliveira, Jesse Sergent, Ben King and Haimar Zubeldia.

As he told VeloNews.com, when whispers of a merger between the two Trek-backed teams began to take shape, Leipheimer realized the new “RadioSchleck” squad was a team that didn’t have room for him.

“That’s just how it works out,” Leipheimer said. “Johan wanted to change the team. He had Lance (Armstrong) winning the Tour for seven years, and then he won several grand tours in a row with Alberto (Contador). He’s won the Tour a lot. He’s won big races. I think this year, especially in the Tour, it was clear we weren’t going to win. And the chances aren’t increasing with time. I’m not saying we couldn’t have won, but there are guys out there with a better chance. Alberto is the best rider in the world, along with Andy Schleck and Cadel Evans. Johan is interested in getting back on top, and that was going to take something major.”

Though his Tour de France was marred by crashes and injuries, and he wasn’t able to win his beloved Amgen Tour of California, finishing second to Horner, the 2011 season was one of Leipheimer’s best. He rode to overall wins at the Tour of Switzerland, the Tour of Utah, and the inaugural USA Pro Cycling Challenge.

Negotiations began between Leipheimer’s agent, Paul de Geyter of Celio Sport & Image, and Lefevere during the Tour — well before the American’s wins in Utah and Colorado.

With HTC-Highroad disbanding, Lefevere and the team’s owner, Czech billionaire Zdenek Bakala, were keen on picking up several top GC riders, such as Tony Martin and twin brothers Peter and Martin Velits — and the valuable UCI WorldTour points they brought the historically classics-focused team. Lefevere was also keen on hiring HTC director Brian Holm.

“Quick Step first went to (Paul de Geyter), maybe even before the Tour de France,” Leipheimer said. “I knew I had to do the Tour, just to see how it goes. Then things got serious immediately after the Tour.”

Leipheimer said most of the communication (and negotiation) took place between de Geyter and Lefevere, while the American rider spoke most with Specialized president Mike Sinyard, whom he’d known since his days at Gerolsteiner in 2005 and 2006.

“I spoke with Brian Holm at the races,” he said. “I also spoke with Mike Sinyard, who told me (Specialized) was moving to Quick Step. That’s when I started to gather more information about the team, about how they were about to take on these stage racers, and how the whole thing was built around UCI points. We (stage racers) have points, and the way to score points is through stage races and GC. And Mike Sinyard told me, ‘I know they are interested in you.’”

“When they first approached me, I still saw it as a classics team, and thought, ‘how am I going to fit in?’ But I also heard that Mr. Bakala and Patrick Lefevere were looking to change the team. Of course Tom Boonen and the classics squad will be one of the best, that will always be a priority, but they also wanted to invest into riders who could time trial, and win stage races.

“They wanted to bring on a new group of people, like Brian Holm, to help orchestrate that, and to use more of the approach that teams like Garmin, Sky, HTC and RadioShack have been using — more equipment oriented, taking into consideration the wind tunnel, nutrition, recovery, and all the major factors in stage-racing performance. For me it was an opportunity and a challenge, to help them find their way, and to help create a part of the team that can compete at stage races.”

News leaked out nearly a month ago, yet Leipheimer remained tight-lipped about the move until late last week, when he posted a short message on the website for his King’s Ridge Gran Fondo. Why the delay?

“I was trying to be respectful to RadioShack and Nissan,” Leipheimer said. “My Gran Fondo is coming up, and they’re both big sponsors. Those guys have been really cool to me, and I felt bad (that news of the transfer) was going to come out before this big event that they’ve put a lot of support into.”

Looking forward

Leipheimer rode for the U.S. Postal Service in 2000 and 2001, launching his status as a grand-tour contender with a third-place finish at the 2001 Vuelta a España. He switched over to Rabobank for three years; then two years with Gerolsteiner, winning the 2005 Deutschland Tour and the 2006 Dauphiné Libéré. In 2007 he returned to Bruyneel’s program, taking the first of three consecutive wins at the Amgen Tour of California and riding to a third-place finish at the Tour de France behind Discovery Channel teammate Alberto Contador. He also won the U.S. national road title that year.

In 2008, riding in an Astana kit, Leipheimer again rode in support of Contador at the grand tours. The Spaniard won both the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta, with Leipheimer finishing 18th at the Giro, and second overall at the Vuelta, where won both time trials. The American also took a bronze medal in the Olympic time trial, and finished fourth at the world time trial championship.

Stage race success continued over the 2009 and 2010 seasons. Leipheimer won the Amgen Tour of California, Vuelta a Castilla y León and SRAM Tour of the Gila in 2009, and also finished fifth at the Giro. In 2010 he won Gila, Utah, and the Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike race, but finished third in California.

Though he turns 39 next year, Leipheimer said he still has ambitions of riding for stage-race wins, adding that while training earlier this summer, he broke a personal record for a local Santa Rosa climb that he’d set five years earlier.

“I’m still interested in riding for a top spot for myself. I’m not any weaker than I’ve ever been,” he said. “I’ve shown that in racing and in training. When the day comes when I can’t do it anymore, I’ll stop. But the way things were working out, there was this big opportunity at Omega Pharma-Quick Step for me, and I wanted to be part of that.”

With Martin and Velits, Leipheimer knows he won’t be the only rider on the Omega Pharma-Quick Step team looking for GC results. Martin’s ride into the rainbow jersey last week reinforced that he’s now the top time trialist in the sport, also capable of winning week-long stage races as he did at Paris-Nice and Volta ao Algarve. Whether or not he and Leipheimer will race together, as co-leaders, or focus on different events remains to be seen.

“Tony won Paris-Nice, he can go uphill,” Leipheimer said. “I’m not sure if he wants to try to turn himself into a grand tour contender. It could compromise his time trialing ability a little to become a better climber, and right now he’s just crushing everyone in the time trial. So maybe he’ll just focus on one-week stage races. He’s the best in the world — why would you risk that? Maybe it just happens over time, he becomes a better climber in the big mountains day after day. But if I were him, I think I might keep doing what he’s doing, he’s doing so well.”

Though it’s a Belgian team, Leipheimer said his schedule would remain the same, as Specialized’s commercial interests will bring the team to California, Utah and Colorado in 2012.

“I’ve always had a lot of friends at Specialized,” Leipheimer said. “I’ve always had a good relationship with Mike, and that was the catalyst to get me focused on Omega Pharma-Quick Step.”

Specialized will also sponsor Saxo Bank and Astana with bikes in 2012.

Part of the jump in teams means Leipheimer will be switching from Trek to Specialized time trial bikes — from a Trek Speed Concept to a Specialized Shiv. And for a rider who has both won and lost time trials by fractions of a second over the past few seasons, Leipheimer knows that adapting his TT position to a new bike will be an undertaking.

“It’s a big task,” he said. “Even when Trek went from the TTX to the Speed Concept, after switching bikes, I never felt as fast as I had on the Speed Concept. It’s difficult to replicate your position on one bike to a new bike. The thing to do is get with Specialized, get into the wind tunnel, and spend time getting used to the new bike. I’m confident Specialized will support myself and the team and help in making us go as fast as possible.”

Also unclear is whether or not Leipheimer will continue to work with Dr. Allen Lim next year. Lim left Slipstream Sports two years ago to come across to Bruyneel’s team, working with Armstrong and the rest of the RadioShack squad. But in 2011 Lim worked most closely with Leipheimer, something Leipheimer said was integral to his results. Leipheimer said Lim’s plans for next year aren’t finalized — “I don’t want to speak for Allen about his future” — but that he hopes to work with him again in some capacity.

“Allen has helped me out a lot the past few years, especially this year,” Leipheimer said. “He invested a lot of time into my season. I had an up and down season, and he pulled me back up a couple of times. Max Testa has always trained me, and that will never stop, he motivates me to get to my best form. But Allen was hands-on, traveling with the team, able to travel with me to certain training camps and certain races, able to be hands on with motor pacing, nutrition, recovery, all these different aspects. I wouldn’t have had the season I had without Allen, and I plan on continuing to work with him. We plan on doing some training camps together; we’ll look for any opportunity to work together.”

Leipheimer said all in all he feels good about how he left Bruyneel’s team, particularly given the confused atmosphere that so many riders and staff from both RadioShack and Leopard-Trek find themselves in now.

“I left the team on good terms. Johan and (Luxembourg real estate mogul Flavio Becca) wanted the best team in the world, and there are a few people they wanted to build the team around,” Leipheimer said.

“But at the same time, it’s unfortunate, because there will be riders and staff that are left out. What do you do? That is business. It happens every day in the business world, people lose their jobs, and it’s unfortunate. I don’t know all of the details, how they are structuring it, but I feel good about what I’m doing, and looking forward, I think I made a good choice. I’m happy I have a two-year contract with Omega Pharma-Quick Step. I’m looking forward to a new set of challenges. Change is good.”