By John Wilcockson
Levi Leipheimer is upbeat after winning his first bike race since he took the French stage race, the Route du Sud, in June 2002. He’s psyched because the race he won on Thursday was the toughest, and the only true mountain stage, of this week’s Setmana Catalana.
The five-hour stage took in two climbs (including the one to the finish) to the remote ski station of the Port del Comte, a Cat. 1 ascent that peaks out at 5709 feet elevation, deep in the Spanish Pyrenees. The significance of his win was obvious, particularly in the context of this year’s upcoming Tour de France. To win the stage, Leipheimer attacked from a 12-strong pack that was pursuing two-time Vuelta a España winner Roberto Heras of Liberty Seguros.
The chase group established itself on the first pass of the 12km-long Comte climb, and besides the American it included former Giro d’Italia champion Stefano Garzelli, 2003 Alpe d’Huez winner Iban Mayo and Italy’s grand-tour hope Ivan Basso. And scattered back down the precipitous mountainside were Vuelta podium finishers Alejandro Valverde (who finished 1:53 behind Leipheimer), Oscar Sevilla (at 4:00) and Aitor Gonzales (at 7:31), while T-Mobile’s 2003 Giro champion Paolo Savoldelli (at 11:29), and 1997 Tour winner Jan Ullrich (at 28:30) were dropped as soon as the race reached the cold, but sunny slopes of the Comte climb.
“It felt great to win again,” Leipheimer told VeloNews. “I actually went across the line and I was like, ‘Was Roberto the last one [in front]?’ I didn’t want to put my arms up, because I wasn’t really sure.”
The 30-year-old Leipheimer, who lives in Santa Rosa, California, was happy to get on the winning bandwagon of his Dutch team, Rabobank, which has won more races than any other Division 1 team in the first couple months of the 2004 season. “I think this was our team’s 12th or 13th win,” Leipheimer said.
Asked if he was already close to his hoped-for Tour de France form, he replied, “It’s hard to say. I did Paris-Nice and there’s definitely a difference between Paris-Nice and this race. Paris-Nice was faster; it was a better field. And I came out of Paris-Nice stronger. In some ways, I’m going better than I ever have.”
And how difficult was the climb that produced his excellent stage victory? “In the race road book and what we’d heard, it wasn’t [supposed to be] very hard,” Leipheimer said. “But when we got to it the first time I was surprised that it was harder than I expected. It was a good climb, like a Tour Cat. 1 climb.”
Leipheimer began Thursday’s stage feeling good despite a finishing-sprint crash the day before that left him with road rash and a stiff neck. “Yes, I felt good,” he confirmed. “As soon as I got on the bike to go sign in, the first few pedal strokes, I was paying attention and I felt fine.”
And he said he had planned to shoot for the stage win. “Yes, definitely,” said Leipheimer. “I just tried to sit down and spin, and kind of keep quiet. I was trying to decide who I thought was the strongest rider, and try to follow them. I was hoping that I would get in a situation where that person would want to win the overall, and so if we worked together, they would be more concerned [with gaining time] and I could save myself for the stage win — and that’s what happened.”
Leipheimer attacked strongly inside 4km to go, then again inside 3km — which proved to be the winning move when he was joined by the eventual race winner, local Catalan rider Joaquin Gonzales of Saunier Duval.
“I told [Rodriguez]: ‘I’ll work, I’ll do everything, but I’m winning the stage.’ Of course, he agreed. I think he tried to sprint me in the end, but I wasn’t going to lose the stage.”
At one point, though, it looked as though Heras — who’d been in the day’s main breakaway group for 170km — was going to stay clear. “Yes,” agreed Leipheimer. “With 1K to go I thought for sure we would catch him, and then with about 300 meters I thought, maybe not, because he tried again. But he was out there all day so it’d be pretty hard for him [to stay clear]. He, Sevilla and a few others went away on the first climb.”
If Leipheimer hadn’t lost a half-minute on the opening stage of the Setmana, he might well have won the overall, too, instead of placing only 14th. His next event will be a true Tour warm-up, the Tour of the Basque Country in northern Spain. That tough five-day Spanish event will likely be followed by the two hilly Ardennes classics in Belgium, and then a stage race like Germany’s Niedersachsen Rundhfahrt in May.
Leipheimer said that his last preparation race before the Tour will be either the Dauphiné Libéré in the French Alps or the Tour of Switzerland. “I’d like to ride Switzerland because I’ve never done it,” he said, “but I see that the Dauphiné has a time trial up Mont Ventoux. That, I would really like to do.”
That’s the newly confident, injury-free, winning Leipheimer talking up his chances. And as the smiling American is now raring to tackle the rugged Ventoux stage, he’s going to be one mean customer come July’s Tour.