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Levi Leipheimer Interview: Living up to Potential
By Chris Henry
Levi Leipheimer's career took a major step forward in 2001 when, riding for US Postal, he finished third in the Vuelta a España. Following that and a fourth in the World's TT, he was offered a spot on Rabobank. There he rode to an eighth place finish in the 2002 Tour de France in his first attempt at the Grand Boucle. Chris Henry caught up with Levi during his time back home in the United States.
Levi Leipheimer is back home in California, finally having some time to reflect on the big changes of the past year, his first crack at the Tour de France, and what might lie ahead for one of America's top cyclists. But first things first: any special vacation plans during the break?
"I always get that question," he begins. "It's funny because a vacation for me and my wife is coming home to America and enjoying where we live in Northern California. I travel a lot during the season and we live overseas as well so a vacation is the last thing we want to do. We are going to stay at home for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's. I will be heading to Europe on January 13th for our team presentation in Holland, and then a training camp in Tuscany just after."
Big changes, big opportunities
Taking a look back, how does Leipheimer sum up the 2002 season and the move to a new team? "Last year was a huge change for me, but extremely exciting," Levi told Cyclingnews. "I am proud to be a part of such a big European team like Rabobank. Not many Americans get the chance or take the chance to experience that."
What does it mean for an American not only to ride in Europe, but to be a team leader? To Levi, it's no small achievement, and the honor doesn't go unnoticed. "I feel like it's a little part of American cycling history to be on a non-American team and to lead the team in the Tour de France. I am very proud of this. This is a personal difference for me having ridden for US Postal and now Rabobank."
Leipheimer switched to Rabobank at the same time former Postal teammate Tyler Hamilton took his own chance to help lead the CSC-Tiscali team. Inevitably, the two were questioned constantly during the season about their moves and the differences between the various teams. "Professionally, [USPS and Rabobank] are very much alike," Levi explained, "good program, well funded, great riders and super organization."
With the 2002 season under his belt, it looks as though the move to Rabobank has been a good fit. As Levi explained, the camaraderie is there and the team is very supportive. "The team is a close group. Everyone is an equal and everything is straight forward. I respect the way this team does business. I know that sounds like PR clichés but it really is the truth." Plus, unlike many European teams, Rabobank also makes the language transition rather easy. "Rabobank is very Anglo-friendly," he continued, "I know some Dutch from the past and have tried to improve, but everyone speaks English so well, it's difficult to improve my skills."
Tour 2002: Trial by Fire?
"My major objective last year was the Tour de France," said Levi. "This was a huge undertaking for someone who had never ridden it or been in the position to lead a team in a major stage race, let alone the Tour."
Certainly landing on the final podium of the Vuelta was a major accomplishment, but in most people's eyes, the Tour is always a step above. When asked what his expectations were going into the Tour, Levi answered quite simply that he didn't know what to expect.
"Honestly, I figured I could finish anywhere on the GC," he confided. "When I say anywhere, I'm talking about 100th, not first. To finish eighth in my first Tour, in my first situation as a team leader, is something I am very content with. Sure I looked back and counted the seconds I lost here and there but I definitely was happy with the way I rode."
When any rider takes the step to focus almost an entire season on the Tour, the race naturally takes on an even greater dimension. In this sense, Levi was no exception. "I prepared as well as I knew how, and at the start in Luxembourg I was very anxious. All year I thought about the Tour. I rode all the Alpine stages with Michael Boogerd. I waited a long time to get to that point."
"I first saw the Tour de France on TV when I was 13, and I knew I would be there someday," Levi said. "To finally arrive at the start, it is overwhelming. My heart rate was 150 just standing around before the Prologue."
Leipheimer went on to place a solid 18th in the Prologue, despite any pre-race nerves. From that moment on, the Tour was serious business, but it seems no first-time rider can ignore the immense scope of the race.
"Later in the Tour, the crowds on the epic climbs like La Mongie, Plateau de Beille, Ventoux and La Plagne were enormous," Levi continued. "It was the greatest spectacle I've ever seen. The most emotional moment came when we swung on to the Champs Elysées for the first time; it was indescribable."
When asked about his favorite moments of the 2002 season, his victory in the uphill time trial and the overall title at the Route du Sud no doubt get first billing. But Levi's thoughts still come back to the Tour, including Michael Boogerd's win at La Plagne where he also finished sixth. "I also feel like my Tour turned around and started to improve on the climb up Ventoux," he noted. "I was dropped early on and then actually came back to the front, just in time for Lance to attack the group. My legs actually got better the higher I climbed."
Levi's 2002 season ended on a difficult note, as blocked intestines forced him out of the Tour of Holland and into the hospital for an operation. When he was two years old, Levi was kicked in the stomach by a horse, rupturing his intestines in two places. Excess scar tissue from an operation was to blame for the blockage which required an operation this year. Asked about the effects of the surgery, Levi noted that he has fully recovered, though it's impossible to know if the problem will reappear. "I am lucky with the timing of it all," he said. "I didn't have to rush back to form or get back on the bike right of way. I took it very easy for two months and now the fitness is coming back very fast."
Speaking of fitness, Cyclingnews asked the rider how he will prepare during the off-season for 2003. "I eased into my training this year," he explained. "I spent October on the mountain bike a few times a week. I also did Pilates three times a week. I lost a lot of muscle when I was in the hospital and when I got back to the States I saw a specialist about my alignment and muscle strength. I had horrible posture; I looked like an 80 year old man."
"At the end of October I began my training and started riding on the road and lifting weights," he added. "I am still riding off road on the mountain bike, as well as my new Colnago cross bike- my first cross bike that is. I gradually increase my hours on the bike and keep the intensity fairly low. I'm focusing on regaining the muscle/power that I lost. Last year I felt like I wasn't as powerful as I have been in the past. I never felt like I did a decent time trial last year. It was a trade off for improved climbing."
Leipheimer's program for 2003 is still being discussed with the team, although he notes that the Dauphiné Libéré will likely be the pre-Tour race of choice. His season is expected to start at the Volta a Algarve race in Portugal, followed by the Spanish stage races, with periods of rest and specific training in between. One thing's for sure, all roads will lead to France in July.
Of course, another topic on many Americans' minds is the fact that the 2003 World Championships will be held in Hamilton, Ontario, a prospect that clearly interests Leipheimer. "I would love to do it," he said. "My wife is Canadian, and I know the area a bit from the Tour of Canada a few years back. It's early to say that I will be there for sure but I will keep it in my head."
The World's are a question to be answered later, but without doubt Levi has one major focus for the next few years, the Tour de France. "It's the biggest race in the world and the sponsors really want a piece of it," he said, adding that he loves "the challenge of taking on the world's biggest and baddest race."
Eighth place in his Tour debut is ample encouragement to make the biggest race his biggest objective, even if some other possibilities linger in his mind. "I need to see just how far I can go," Leipheimer noted optimistically, "however I will never forget the Vuelta and how my life changed there. I feel like it's a race I could win."
"The 2003 Tour looks like fun to me, it's interestingly different that past few editions. At least in my view that is. I think and I hope that it will be more suspenseful and the gaps will be closer farther into the race instead of being blown wide open after the first two mountain stages."
Finally, Cyclingnews asked one of the new stars of the current generation what he thinks the future might hold for American cycling. "I think the crop of Americans doing well in Europe right now is a bit of coincidence and a bit of influence, maybe the LeMond years, who knows," he mused. "USA Cycling is doing everything they can. They are up against countries with government aid and more public support. They are learning to promote the sport more than anything because it's really a 'product' in the US; the consumer has to pay."
What about the role of the number one American pro team, US Postal Service, in promoting the sport and its development? "US Postal already knows how to do this and they are pioneering a new avenue for US cycling. Although, I really have doubts about that team after Lance leaves. If he stays involved even after he's finished racing then I think it would really help the team and US Cycling."