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Levi Leipheimer interview, August 2, 2006, part 1

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Levi Leipheimer's immediate focus is the defence of his Deutschland Tour title, but he is also hoping that a change of team will bring increased success in the Tour de France and other races next year. In this two-part feature, Leipheimer spoke to Cyclingnews' Shane Stokes about his German tour defence, signing for his new team and his ride in the 2006 Tour.

Leipheimer was happier man
Photo ©: Anthony Tan
(Click for larger image)

Although the Tour de France didn't work out as well as he had hoped this year, Levi Leipheimer is looking to the future with increased motivation after his signing for the Discovery Channel squad. The American has achieved strong results with the Rabobank and Gerolsteiner teams, finishing eighth, ninth and sixth in recent Tours, and is convinced that his move back to the squad he competed with when it was sponsored by the US Postal Service will enable him to step up another notch.

The 32-year-old says that he is happy with the signing, which was announced just after the end of this year's Tour on July 23, "I am very excited," he told Cyclingnews last Wednesday. "That is where I started my career, in Europe at least, and I think that is where I made the biggest progress, during that time. I am looking forward to going back. I have learned a lot over the past five years, but I'm looking forward to having the expertise and experience of Johan [Bruyneel] and the team behind me."

Leipheimer finished third in the 2001 Vuelta a España and then moved to lead the Rabobank squad in 2002. However he has maintained contact with the American team since then and, with Discovery looking for a new leader, his strong consistency in the Tour plus his victories in the 2005 Deutschland Tour and 2006 Dauphiné Libéré marked him out as a good choice.

A great opportunity

Trying to limit the damage
Photo ©: Sirotti
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He believes the move is the best way for him to achieve success, " It doesn't have anything to do with Gerolsteiner," he said. "It is more that this is a great opportunity for me and I need it to progress further.

"I haven't really had a chance to discuss how things will be just yet," he continued. "Obviously, we did this [made the agreement] during the Tour, so I haven't had a chance to talk about too many things with Johan. But we'll sit down soon and go through everything."In recent days there has been speculation that Jan Ullrich might be signing for Discovery, something which would obviously change the dynamic within the team and affect Leipheimer's own Tour de France ambitions. He says that he doesn't feel threatened by the talk, "I think it is just a rumour," he said. "I think it is going to be a few months before we are going to know if he is even going to be able to ride. I don't see it [the signing] happening."

The best career win

Prior to this year's Tour, he used the Tour of Catalunya and the Dauphiné Libéré as his buildup to the race. He dominated the latter event, finishing in the top ten on four stages and ending the race a full 1'48 ahead of Ag2R's Christophe Moreau. It was perhaps the most impressive win of his career.

Leipheimer on the front
Photo ©: Sirotti
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"I didn't actually realise that I was going that well beforehand," he stated, when asked about his condition. "My form came on really quick and I didn't realise how good I was until the important points of the race. The time trial was good, and then on Mont Ventoux I didn't suffer at all and felt great. That was also the case on the day to La Toussuire, which was practically the same stage as we did in the Tour…that was thus far the best day I ever had on the bike. I was kind of hoping that would be how I would feel in July, but it didn't work out that way.

In the Tour, Leipheimer was lying just 48 seconds off yellow going into the first time trial and looked to be in a strong position to challenge. However, the race against the clock produced an unexpected result when he placed 96th, over six minutes back. He was also under pressure in the first day in the mountains, even if he ultimately finished with the other main contenders.

Returning to form

After being passed
Photo ©: Sirotti
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He was soon back to good form, though. Leipheimer rebounded to take an excellent second on the following day's stage to Pla de Beret, riding strongly on the final climb and only losing out to Denis Menchov (Rabobank) in the final sprint.

Once in the Alps, Leipheimer continued to hunt for a stage win. He was tenth at Alpe d'Huez and then made a big effort the following day when he attacked in pursuit of several breakaway riders on the road to La Toussuire. He overtook all bar Michael Rasmussen but then the race blew up behind, leading to his recapture with about five kilometres to go. He was ninth at the line.

The pendulum of form was swinging after that point. Leipheimer was 38th to Morzine but then went up the road in a dangerous breakway on stage 18 to Mâcon, then forging ahead with Iñaki Isasi (Euskaltel-Euskadi) with 50 kilometres to go. The duo and stayed clear of the others for the next 30 kilometres, but were caught with 20 kilometres to go by the rest of the break. He finished 14th and took back just under seven minutes on the peloton.

Leipheimer on La Toussuire
Photo ©: Sirotti
(Click for larger image)

The final race against the clock saw him place 34th, 6'02 behind T-Mobile's Serguei Gonchar. The combined effect of his efforts was a final overall classification position of 13th overall, 19 minutes and 22 seconds behind Floyd Landis.

Health problems in the Tour

Given his victory in the Dauphiné, a comparison of sorts could be made with Iban Mayo, who dominated that race in 2004 but then faded in the Tour. However Leipheimer says that there is a difference, "Well, I would like to think that my Tour this year was better than his that year," he stated. "I think he ended up going home. But you know, if you are on top form and there are a couple of little things health-wise, silly little common things that you experience, it just knocks you back and it is hard to recover from that. I think that for me, this year's Tour was just one thing after another - I only had three or four good days where I felt like my normal self. But I think the important thing is that I kept fighting and tried to win the stage…I hope people can recognise that."

Finishing ninth
Photo ©: Sirotti
(Click for larger image)

There were rumours after the first time trial that he had suffered a stomach upset and that this was the reason behind his disappointing performance. Leipheimer is, however, not one to make excuses, "It has got to this point where there is just a huge story about what happened," he states, when asked about the subject. "It is really nothing…it is just that I didn't want to make an excuse. It is stupid, it was just a bad result. Obviously it is not my best, but I just didn't want to say why because I think it is kind of silly when riders are always doing that. Of course, there are definitely some good reasons, but the fact is that the performance was bad and that was it."

When pressed, he did confirm that the rumours he was below par were true, "Yes, I had things you can get over, but they sap you. That is it. But I got to the point where it started making me mad because people wouldn't drop it. All I wanted to do was say, 'there are no excuses, it was just a bad day, I am trying to look forward.' And move onwards."

Part 2: Fighting to the end, is here

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