SISTERON, France – (VN) With Paris-Nice coming down to the wire, Levi Leipheimer promises to give everything he’s got in Sunday’s time trial showdown against Sky’s Bradley Wiggins.
Leipheimer is quietly optimistic about his chances to erase a 10-second gap to Wiggins up the 9.7km climbing time trial, high above France’s glittering Cote d’Azur.
“I’m going to give it everything I’ve got. It’s something I’ve worked my whole career for,” Leipheimer told VeloNews.com. “Sunday is a big day. Well, we have to get through tomorrow first, but Sunday’s a big day.”
Leipheimer negotiated Friday’s rollercoaster sixth stage into Sisteron to remain third overall at 10 seconds, with Lieuwe Westra (Rabobank) holding on to second place at six seconds back.
Leipheimer started the season off strong with victory at the Tour de San Luís in Argentina and is poised to make the podium and perhaps win Paris-Nice in his first European race of the year.
Omega Pharma-Quick Step sport director Brian Holm said that such consistency reflects the depth of Leipheimer’s experience and motivation coming into the season.
For Paris-Nice, the team started with defending champion Tony Martin, but the German was still recovering from a chest cold he suffered at the Volta ao Algarve in mid-February.
“Looking back, we have to be satisfied with where we are. We did nothing wrong. Levi has been amazing; he has not missed one echelon so far. The team has been great,” Holm said. “The plan was for (Levi) to ride for Tony (Martin), but he didn’t have the diamonds in his legs. And Levi has really stepped up. It’s quite amazing. The time trial is going to be close. It’s going to come down to seconds.”
Leipheimer said he was satisfied with how Thursday’s summit finale played out on Mende. He and Wiggins neutralized the threat represented by Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), but he admitted they were caught off guard by the late-stage attack by Westra.
“I felt on par with Wiggo and Valverde, but not with Westra. That was a surprise for all of us,” Leipheimer explained. “Wiggins went, because that was logical, because for both he and I, we could afford to give up time bonuses to Alejandro, but not time. So (Wiggins) was just time trialing to the top, for me, that’s fine.
“I’d like to see it come down to Sunday. That’s his best chance, that’s my best chance.”
Time bonuses have been a factor, with Wiggins taking seven seconds over the past few days. “Time bonuses are part of racing,” Leipheimer said with a shrug. “Wiggo can out-sprint me. I just have to do the best I can.”
Leipheimer made it through Friday’s stage despite the rather wild opening hour. With a fierce mistral blowing down the Rhone Valley, the race blew apart in the opening kilometers, with Valverde missing an early move that included most of the other GC favorites.
“Today was one of the harder stages. It split after three kilometers; there were 28 of us up there, Valverde wasn’t there. It was like that for an hour. I think he came across on the climb by himself,” Leipheimer said. “The group went with Jens and Luis Leon, because you could tell right then that would be a group to stay away, because it was not an easy day to chase.
“On these tricky finishes, we just have to take control. The team has been doing a great job of that and keeping me out of trouble. I’ve had the ‘lazy boy’ ride, like today and into Mende. Boonen is just there all the time with me.”
Leipheimer is feeling comfortable with his move to Omega Pharma-Quick Step and says he’s more motivated than ever.
With a Tour de France that favors him this year, with nearly 100km of individual time trials, Leipheimer wants to make the most of his new opportunities with the Belgian team.
A chance to win Paris-Nice, one of Europe’s most prestigious and important stage races, is right there for the taking. Leipheimer couldn’t ask for a better debut with his new team.
“I don’t want to start commenting on that (perhaps winning),” Leipheimer concluded. “Paris-Nice is an important race. It would go well with some of the other races I’ve won. I would really like to win, but there is some stiff competition.”
Leipheimer will need to take a little more than one second per kilometer on Wiggins to realize that dream. As he said, it’s going to be close.