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Tales from the (Californian) Peloton

Levi Leipheimer: Seeing how far he can go while kickin' back and smelling the roses

By Mark Shimahara/BikeZen.com

Kickin' back - at 60 km/h?
Photo: © Mark Shimahara
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By the time you read this story, Rabobank leader Levi Leipheimer will already be in Europe, readying himself for the first races in the 2003 season that will prepare him for his second assault on the Tour de France. However, last week Levi was in Santa Rosa, California, doing what he does best: riding his bike, thinking about how far he can go, while kickin' back and smelling the roses.

With its sprawling green pastures, temperate climate and grazing cows, Santa Rosa, California is where Rabobank team leader Levi Leipheimer chooses to make his home during the off season. Sharing it lovingly with his wife, Odessa, and six cats, and enjoying rather than chasing off food raiders to his yard - which include a raccoon, a possum and two wild turkeys.

For Levi, for whom the bike and animals are obvious passions, Santa Rosa is an environment conducive for both. His deep love for cycling and critters is reflected in his philanthropic gestures. This fall he auctioned off several of his Tour de France jerseys, which resulted in the contributions of several thousand dollars to charities including the Ross Dillon Fund (established to help pay the medical expenses of a Sonoma county cyclist who was hit by a car) and a local feline rescue center. But on January 13, Levi left his home to kick off his 2003 European campaign.

A touch chilly to begin with
Photo: © Mark Shimahara
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The 2003 year is a promising one, given how notable last year was him. Previously of the US Postal Service squad, Levi spent his first year in 2002 riding for the European team Rabobank, who was so impressed with his top three placing of his inaugural grand tour in the 2001 Tour of Spain that they recruited him and branded him a leader. Levi made Rabobank look like they made a very good choice, finishing eighth overall in his first ever Tour de France.

2002 included setbacks too. Last August, while racing in the Tour of Holland, he suffered a blocked intestine that required surgery, cutting his season short and was bed ridden for 12 days. Neither eating or getting nutrients through an IV for much of the time, his weight dropped to 120 pounds. In spite of the surgery, however, Levi doesn't consider 2003 a comeback season, per se. While he expects the next few months of training to be harsher than usual, he feels strong and confident.

Shortly after the surgery in August, Levi returned to Santa Rosa to rest and began preparing for the upcoming season. For Levi, Santa Rosa is ideal. With its mild climate and endearing, cow-dotted and soft rolling hills, it provides a comforting contrast to the oxygen deprived, jagged edged beauty that he sees so much of during the cycling season. Santa Rosa also allows him to enjoy the things he misses about the States when he is in Europe, such as going out to eat Japanese or Thai food and watching undubbed movies.

Are we there yet?
Photo: © Mark Shimahara
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Since his surgery, time off the bike was short, and Levi began preparing for the 2003 season last October. His workouts have remained at low intensity but his duration has increased to over six hours long.

Typically, riding starts around 9:00am and he isn't off the bike till late afternoon. But his affair with the bike doesn't end after the ride. Afterwards, he takes meticulous care of his equipment. His Colnago cross bike that he modified with fenders and cages was spotless after a rainy ride earlier that day. His knowledge of cycling equipment is vast: he rattles off equipment weights with ease and thoughtfully evaluates products. He's even quite familiar with inertia valves, technology just introduced to mountain bikes this fall. One would wonder why he isn't Shimano's guinea pig for new product.

His race schedule hasn't been finalized, but he is thinking that he'd like to race the Dauphine as his final preparation for the 2003 Tour. Other preparation includes reconnaissance rides of the Pyrenees and Alps. Reconnoitering the Tour route was instrumental in his success last year.

Rolling rolling rolling
Photo: © Mark Shimahara
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It was particularly beneficial on Mont Ventoux, his turning point of the Tour. Levi believed that his familiarity with the climb enabled him to catch up with the leaders. "If I hadn't known what the climb was like I would have gone over my limit and lost a lot of time," reflects Levi.

Listening to Levi, it becomes clear that his self-confidence and what he calls "the plan"-his training strategy - are what carry him through the excruciatingly demanding training that precedes the Tour de France. By assuring himself that following "the plan" leads somewhere favorable, he maintains motivation and a sense of collectedness.

When asked if the Tour itself motivates him to train, he responded: "It's not about one race, it's about doing my best and seeing how far I can go and how fast I can ride. I'm not doing it just for the money or fame - it's to see how far I can go, that's what motivates me."


Images by Mark Shimahara/BikeZen.com/

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