By Neal Rogers
Astana’s Levi Leipheimer entered this year’s Giro d’Italia playing down predictions that he could contest for the win, telling interviewers that he was going to take it “day by day, kilometer by kilometer,” and naming Ivan Basso as the top favorite.
Nevertheless, Leipheimer seemed to be positioning himself well in the first two weeks, sitting in fourth place (23 seconds ahead of Basso) entering the critical stage stage 12 time trial. There, he performed well, besting Basso by almost two minutes, but losing 20 seconds to Denis Menchov. Then, on the brutally long and hard stage 16 Leipheimer fell out of contention for the overall win after he conceded 2:51 to drop from third to sixth, 3:21 back.
“I was not as strong as those guys, it is plain and simple,” Leipheimer said at the finish line.
VeloNews spoke with Leipheimer Wednesday, after stage 17, where Leipheimer again lost some time to most of the GC favorites, although he remains in sixth place. Parts of this interview are in the new VeloCenter show, being posted today on VeloNews.com.
VeloNews: How are you doing?
Levi Leipheimer: Just trying to hang in there. Just hanging on now.
VN: The last few stages at Monte Potrano and Blockhaus have been disappointing for your GC hopes. What can you tell us about your morale and what’s been going on with you during the last few days?
LL: Monte Petrano was a long, hard stage. I don’t know if you’ve seen some of our remarks but it was definitely one of the hardest days I’ve experienced in terms of heat, rough roads, steep climbs, you know, the length of it all. Coming into the third week I feel like I can’t compete with those five or six guys that are stronger than me right now. So, tactically there’s not a whole lot I can do, just try to hang on, really, and sort of hope for one of them to have a bad day because right now it’s not possible to attack, they’re just stronger.
On Blockhuse today it was pretty evident. I felt a little better after the rest day, but you could see that Pelizotti was on his own level today, and then Di Luca, Menchov, Basso, Garzelli, they’re just stronger right now. During the first couple weeks of the Giro I felt great and I could play the game, but now I’m just hanging on. People ask me why, I don’t know, it’s been a long year, I’ve had good form for a long time. I’m doing better here than last year. May has never really been my month. I’m just doing my best, I guess.
VN: We saw you come out and win the Tour of California in February. I know that the plan within the team changed when Lance broke his collarbone and you were obviously in good form and came into the race as the leader. But going back to January, at that point was it a plan for you to be contending for the podium in Italy?
LL: No! That thought never crossed my mind. I just decided to do the Giro more out of preparation for the Tour de France than anything. There are a lot of hard races in the spring in Europe, but races that don’t suit me, and there are other guys on the team that can do well at those races so I just skip those. I train really hard for California throughout the winter. Afterwards I’m a little deflated mentally and physically. I had unexpected form for a while with Castilla y Leon and was still feeling good before this race and the first two weeks of this race. I don’t think I’ve had the correct preparation for the Giro that one would have if you were really targeting it. Look at the positive side I’m a lot stronger here than last year (last year we only had a week’s notice so that’s the big reason why). I’m pretty happy with it. One thing I’m bummed about is not winning that (stage 12) time trial. I think it was a very historic time trial and 20 seconds is not super close but it’s not a lot and the crash the day before didn’t help.
VN: I would say it’s pretty close considering it was an hour and thirty four minutes and I heard there were 600 turns on the course. It’s pretty amazing that the two top guys could be that close after such a crazy course.
LL: That’s a very good point,. There were 600 turns but of course a lot of them were uphill or on the flatter parts. Of course, you can’t count those turns. But on the downhill … I don’t think I lost any time to Menchov on the downhill I think I actually gained some. I saw the split times. It was all on the first hill, I lost 19 seconds to him. You’re right, if you work out the percentage, 20 seconds over an hour and thirty-four minutes, it’s not much.
VN: Do you feel like you still have it in the legs to contest for the stage win on Sunday in the 14km time trial?
LL: Looking at the book and studying the course, I shouldn’t be surprised, this is the Giro and we’ve seen tricky courses everyday, so I shouldn’t be surprised that Sunday is a tricky course. It’s got cobble stones, some sort of weird S-turn thing in it. I noticed squiggly lines even though it’s dead flat, so I’m not sure what that is. A lot of corners. It’s very short, 14-something kilometers. Not my best course. I’m good at just putting my head down and going for it. But I’ll do my best, obviously, we’ll see.
VN: As far as the GC we’ve seen Di Luca move up to within 26 seconds of Menchov. We have the summit finish on Vesuvias and then the time trail. Who do you think is going to walk away with the overall win at this Giro?
LL: I’d say Menchov. I think Di Luca would need probably need 20 or 30 seconds over him going into the timr trial on Sunday and I don’t see him putting a minute into him on Vesuvias. It could always happen but that’s just my guess.
VN: We’ve seen Armstrong up the road both on Monte Petrano, before he dropped out of the group when he dropped back to pace you. We saw him again on the attack Wednesday at Blockhaus. Can you talk a little bit about the team tactics there?
LL: Yeah (on) Monte Petrano he saved me minutes. At that point I was third in GC and the team focus was still on the chance to win the Giro or a podium spot. After the fact, I lost a lot of time and dropped to sixth place. It looks like there are five or six guys in the race who are stronger. Lance is getting better. He was better than me in Petrano and he was better than me today. We haven’t won a stage so we need to try to win one. He gave it a go today. I definitely didn’t need help because I couldn’t follow the guys ahead of me in the GC. So he tried to win the stage. It’s pretty simple really. You don’t sacrifice a stage win just to keep 6th place on GC. I can do that all by myself really. On that note, I had a ton of support before the climb. Guys like Steve Morabito, Jani Brajkovic, Pop (Yaroslav Popovych), Andrey Zeits — they’re making sure that both Lance and I are in the front. I’m at the the point now, it’s not a lot of tactics. I just try to find the right wheel that’s the right rhythm for me and just get to the top as fast as I can. Try not to lose too much time. Whereas Lance tried to follow the right wheel today but Pelizotti was too strong. But it’s interesting to see Lance getting better. It’s pretty cool. We were talking about it after the stage. It becomes evident who’s strong and who’s not. He’s been away for three years then all of a sudden in the third week of a grand tour you see him start to emerge and start to play in the race. It’s just a testament to the fact that he’s a champion; he’s one of the best riders in the history of the sport.
VN: How do you see that play forward to the Tour de France?
LL: I don’t have a crystal ball, but all I can say is that it’s going to be a great race and I can’t wait to see it just as much as everyone else. We’re going to have a great team. I think the Giro is definitely good training for myself and Lance for the Tour. Last year I came out of the Giro feeling much stronger the rest of the year. I think it was the reason why I was on the podium at the Vuelta. I imagine it’s going to pay off for the both of us in July.