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Levi Leipheimer didn’t start the 2011 Tour de Suisse expecting to win what many call Europe’s “fourth grand tour.”
It wasn’t until the hours before Sunday’s final-day 32.1km individual time trial that the veteran RadioShack rider believed he had a shot at erasing a 1:59 deficit to race leader Damiano Cunego.
Leipheimer rode a stellar TT, riding to third in the stage and nipping Cunego by just four seconds to claim the overall in a victory that was reminiscent of Greg LeMond’s final-day triumph over Laurent Fignon in the 1989 Tour de France.
Speaking to VeloNews from his home in Spain, a jubilant Leipheimer called the Swiss victory the most important in his career.
“It’s a tough call. I have to concede, when you look at the field, the history of the race and how tough the course was this year, I think it’s my biggest win ever,” Leipheimer said. “The Tour of California is close to my heart, and California has so much going for it as a race, even more than the Tour de Suisse, but the history and level of this year’s race makes it that much higher. Obviously, I am very happy about it.”
Leipheimer was hanging close all week, riding into better form as the race unfolded in one of its most challenging editions across the Swiss Alps. The difference of nearly two minutes to Cunego was right on the limit of possibilities, with Leipheimer needing to take nearly four seconds per kilometer on his Italian rival. Leipheimer knew everything would have to be perfect to have a shot at the overall crown.
“I didn’t worry about it. I knew it was a possibility, but the only thing I could possibly do was relax and focus on doing my best time trial ever,” Leipheimer explained. “It really wasn’t in my control. I had to do a great ride and had to have Damiano not do one of his best time trials. I am not saying he was terrible, but he didn’t pull out one of his best time trials.”
Leipheimer started four riders ahead of Cunego, who went out last as the race leader six minutes later. Riding in typical style, Leipheimer started steady and built up speed and momentum in the closing kilometers of the course. At 9km, Cunego was hanging tough at 28 seconds slower than Leipheimer, losing about three seconds per kilometer. At that pace, Cunego would have kept the yellow jersey. Leipheimer poured it on late, opening his gap to 1:26 at 22km. Cunego, the 2004 Giro d’Italia champion, fought to the end, but the final kilometers played into Leipheimer’s hands.
“I really didn’t think it was going to happen. It was such a surprise when it did. The best part of it was not knowing until Cunego crossed the line. It was so unsure. I thought that I had won, but I didn’t want to celebrate until it was confirmed,” he said. “That last 500 meters, I think I sprinted as hard as I ever had in a time trial. When I saw the time click past on Cunego, I was pretty sure I had won. I knew it was going to be close.”
Leipheimer is cooling down in Spain after his triumph and will enjoy a few quiet days savoring the victory before focusing his attention on the Tour de France.
After struggling through some health issues this spring, including a flare up of an old intestinal injury dating back to his childhood that knocked him off a podium spot in March at the Volta a Catalunya with one stage to go, Leipheimer said he feels especially proud to add the Tour de Suisse to his collection of career victories.
“I am just super happy,” he said. “I have won the Dauphiné, Germany, California and now the Tour de Suisse. If feels like — apart from a grand tour — it feels like a complete collection. It means a lot to me.”