By Andrew Hood
Levi Leipheimer likes what he sees in the new-fangled Tour de France route unveiled last week in Paris for the 95th edition of the grande boucle.
Leipheimer says the interesting mix of shorter time trials and four summit finishes represents a perfect recipe for what he expects will be victory for his new home at Astana. He says whether it’s him or defending champ Alberto Contador stepping on the top rung remains to be seen.
“It’s a great course for Alberto and me. We’re really looking forward to next year’s Tour,” Leipheimer told VeloNews in a phone interview from his home in California. “With myself and the defending champion with Alberto, we have two guys who can win the Tour. It will be huge for our team.”
Leipheimer – who turned 34 last week – joins the 24-year-old Contador at the new-look Astana team trying to rebuild its image after a scandal-laden 2007 season. The Kazakh-sponsored team tapped longtime Discovery Channel sport director Johan Bruyneel to take over management and the Belgian quickly signed on Contador and Leipheimer.
The pair finished first and third, respectively, in this year’s Tour with Leipheimer taking a career-first stage victory in the final time trial and earning a podium spot for the first time in six Tour starts.
With a great 2007 season behind him that also saw victories in the Tour of California, the U.S. national championships, Leipheimer expects to be a protagonist again in 2008 as he takes aim for overall victory.
A challenging final week, with two summit finishes in the Alps and a long individual time trial, will play into his favor as the Montana-native always seems to hit his stride in the third week of a grand tour.
“It is better for me; I always do get better in the third week. Especially after this year’s Tour the way it unfolded, in a way that’s really good for me,” Leipheimer said. “I’m looking to try to win that final time trial again. In the first one, it is also very important to establish my position in the classification. That first one is to show you’re a favorite and the second is where you could win the Tour.”
Leipheimer is staying busy during the off-season in his U.S. base at Santa Rosa, Calif., and said he will study the route in finer detail in the coming weeks.
Of the four summit finishes – Super Besse, Hautacam, Proto Nevoso and L’Alpe d’Huez – the only one Leipheimer is familiar with is L’Alpe d’Huez.
“We’ll be checking out the new climbs. We always look forward to it. It’s a lot of fun to ride the course beforehand,” he said. “We have a lot of the course to look at.”
The absence of the opening prologue is “not really that big of a deal,” but Leipheimer lamented the decision to not include a team time trial for the second year in a row.
“I was disappointed to see there’s no team time trial. Now that I’m on a team like Astana, we would be one of the favorites to win and now they don’t have it,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to win the team time trial at the Tour.”
Leipheimer said the elimination of time bonuses in road stages will hurt the climbing specialists, but said “it’s important that it’s the same for everyone.”
Like many pros, the reduction of long transfers before and after stages is a welcomed innovation for next year’s route.
“The Tour is an extremely hard sporting event. If they make us jump on a plane or drive 200 kilometers before and after stages, it’s just not right,” he said. “It’s good that they’ve taken into consideration how hard the race is on not only the riders, but the staff, too. They have to drive these distances. If we can save our energy not driving around France or getting on airplanes, we’re better off for the racing. That’s what counts and the racing will be better.”
Check back later this week for more from the Leipheimer interview.
Puerto effect could kill Fuerteventura-Canarias
Officials from Spain’s Fuerteventura-Canarias say it will be a “miracle” to save the team for the 2008 season.
The continental team was created from the ashes of the Kelme-Comunidad Valenciana legacy that collapsed in the wake of the Operación Puerto doping scandal in 2006.
With ex-Kelme manager Vicente Belda in tow, the government of Spain’s Canary Islands underwrote the team for the 2007 season with the hopes of earning a spot in the Vuelta a España.
But doubts about the team’s Puerto links among several key riders and staff torpedoed that Vuelta bid. As a result, sponsors are slow to pony up money to meet an October 31 deadline to pay a deposit to the UCI and provide documentation to guarantee salaries for riders and staff for the upcoming season.
According to reports in the Spanish media, the team isn’t expected to have enough sponsor support to carry the team into next season.
The team’s troubles are just the latest in a series of setbacks as the Puerto investigation continues to rip through the Spanish peloton.
Despite no racing bans or legal action taken by the Spanish government in the wake of raids that revealed an extensive blood doping ring organized by Spanish doctor Eufemiano Fuentes, scores of Spanish pros have remained blemished by alleged links to the scandal.
One refuge has proven to be Portugal, where several Puerto-linked riders have found contracts for the upcoming season.
Ruben Plaza and Tino Zaballa, both Caisse d’Epargne riders who saw little action this year due to Puerto links, have joined Benfica and LA MSS, respectively. Isidro Nozal, runner-up in the 2003 Vuelta, exited Karpin-Galicia after being overlooked for this year’s Vuelta to join Liberty-Wurth in Portugal. Koldo Gil, who saw few race days at Saunier Duval-Prodir this year, will join him there.
With Fuerteventura-Canarias’ days numbered, more Spanish riders could be looking across the border to Portugal to try to find contracts.
The route for the 2008 Giro d’Italia will be officially revealed in a lavish ceremony December 1 in Milan, but details of the course are already leaking out.
What’s confirmed is that the season’s first grand tour will start on Sicily with a May 10 start on the Mediterranean island with an opening prologue. At least two road stages are expected on the island before the short transfer to the southern end of Italy’s boot.
Switzerland will also see a stage into Lugano as the Giro’s main excursion beyond national borders.