The spin on Levi Leipheimer, an American cyclist you oughta know
An earlier post took note of cyclist Levi Leipheimer’s fund-raising brainstorm King Ridge Gran Fondo. Now here’s a look at the man behind the wheels:
[Part 2 of 2] Ask most Americans if they know who Levi Leipheimer is and they’ll give you a blank look. Mennonite author, Jewish poet, fashion designer and guy with a beard were some actual responses people gave when asked who they thought he was.
The reality is, Leipheimer is neither a Mennonite nor a poet, he spends most of his time wearing, but not designing tight clothing and he shaves nearly all the hair on his body. But for good reason. Leipheimer is one of the best American cyclists you’ve never heard of.
Now, go down to your local coffee shop on a Saturday morning and ask any of the spandex-clad beanpoles who Leipheimer is and they’ll choke on their macchiatos in a rush to extol his accomplishments. As a rider for Team Discovery and then Team Astana, his highlights include winning the Tour of California in 2007, 2008 and 2009; third place in the 2007 Tour de France; second place in the 2008 Vuelta a Espana (Tour of Spain) and a bronze medal in the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. He’s also a friend and teammate to the only American cyclist everyone has heard of, Lance Armstrong.
Leipheimer’s most recent competitive endeavor was a sixth-place finish at the 2009 Tour of Missouri, which wrapped up on Sept. 13. This top 10 success highlights two important facts: that Leipheimer is very much a rider on the mend; and that this was his first professional race since a crash forced him to drop out of the Tour de France in July.
That crash came at the end of stage 12, as a quick left turn caught Leipheimer by surprise, sending him into and over the curb. Though he initially thought it was only a sprain, a night of sleepless agony and X-rays the next morning confirmed he had broken the scaphoid bone in his right wrist.
Leipheimer was forced to drop out of the race and immediately undergo surgery.
An inauspicious end to a Tour de France was not without precedent for Leipheimer.
In 2003 he broke his pelvis during the first road stage of the Tour. The irony is, dealing with that crash and subsequent letdown prepared Leipheimer psychologically for this year’s injury.
“Seven years later, I feel I’m better equipped to deal with the disappointment,” he said.
From a cycling standpoint, recovering from this year’s broken wrist was a lot easier than the 2003 injury as well, Leipheimer says. After he broke his pelvis, he couldn’t sit down for three weeks, preventing him from riding a stationary bike and therefore seriously impeding his fitness and training regimen.
This time around, Leipheimer was back on his time-trial bike in short order. (The handlebar setup positions the rider’s hands so there is less pressure on the wrists). He maintained his fitness level while his wrist healed, allowing him to return to racing at nearly full capacity.
“It’s not 100% healed,” Leipheimer said just before Missouri. “It feels 90% healed to me, I have 90% mobility and no pain at all, unless I try to move it too far in one direction.”
As for being forced to drop out of the world’s most prestigious cycling race while in fourth place and only 39 seconds behind the leader, Leipheimer takes it all in stride.
“I felt good,” Leipheimer says of his riding at the time of the crash. “I don’t know if I felt good enough to win the Tour, after seeing how good Contador was riding. But the podium? Yeah, maybe. But it doesn’t really matter at this point. As an athlete you never do that to yourself.”
The Contador to which Leipheimer refers is his Astana teammate and eventual winner of the 2009 Tour de France, Alberto Contador. As any fan of Lance Armstrong knows, there was plenty of tension between Armstrong and Contador throughout the three-week race. Contador is a rising superstar in cycling; in 2007 the then 24-year-old Spaniard won the Tour de France and in 2008 he won both the Giro d’Italia and the Tour of Spain. Contador’s lack of respect for Armstrong was evident in his tactical decisions throughout the race, and he confirmed it afterward.
For his part though, Leipheimer stayed neutral in the animosity between his teammates.
“My Spanish isn’t great and his English is sparse so we just did our jobs,” Leipheimer said of their two-year relationship. “Professionally we worked well together. I did a lot of work for him in Vuelta last year bringing him to win. We sort of got along but we just couldn’t communicate that well.”
Regardless of previous team dynamics, Leipheimer is eager to look forward. On Sept. 1, he announced he would be joining Armstrong on the newly formed Team RadioShack for the 2010 and 2011 seasons.
“I’m happy to be on this team," Leipheimer said. “For us, going from (U.S.) Postal to Discover to Astana, it’s a big continuation with Johan and the team. I fit in well with the program, I understand it, we get along and I can ride to the best of my ability with this team.”
Though it’s too early to say which races RadioShack would be participating in next year, Leipheimer said the team would be targeting “the biggest bike races in the world.” (Don’t color us shocked if Team RadioShack’s 2010 calendar has the first three weeks of July circled).
Leipheimer says he is also excited about the prospect of an American team returning to professional cycling and the effect it could have on producing the next wave of U.S. pros.
“We’re an American team with a great American sponsor so naturally we’re going to want more American riders as well as develop the next American generation of cyclists. That’s the goal of any team, to bring on young talent and develop them into the next superstars.”
Though Leipheimer said he didn’t know who Team RadioShack planned on signing, the roster is already filling up with some premier cycling names, including one Gert Steegmans.
Steegmans raised some eyebrows this past summer when he refused to sign an anti-doping addendum to his contract required by his former team Katusha, which would have fined riders five times their salary should they be caught doping. While Leipheimer hadn’t spoken to Steegmans about the dispute, he said he got the impression that Steegmans was simply standing up for his professional rights.
“In a standard UCI contract, everyone signs off that if you test positive you lose your job, you’re fired and suspended,” Leipheimer said. “What they were trying to do was fine him a certain amount [if he were caught], which was a lot, which basically is a little illegal for them to do. In the end, [the dispute] got him fired.”
Despite constantly dealing with the issue of doping in professional cycling, Leipheimer says the sport as a whole is moving forward and addressing the issue head-on.
“No one can sit here and say that no one is ever going to test positive for performance-enhancing substances, but the sport of cycling has done more to confront doping than any other sport,” Leipheimer said. Riders get caught "because we have such a strict stance on doping.”
As for the topic of doping itself, one must get tired of having to answer questions on it every time journalists open their mouth. Yet Leipheimer says he doesn’t mind.
“I understand from what’s happened it’s a part of [cycling],” Leipheimer said. “It’s not so easy to give a good answer when it comes to doping; [pro cyclists] are always worried that our words might get twisted. We’re not the most articulate people when it comes to doping.”
Beyond issues like his old and new team; former and future teammates; and doping in professional cycling, Leipheimer unwinds with … more biking. An avid mountain biker, Leipheimer has even laid down a challenge to Armstrong, who recently won the 2009 Leadville 100 — considered by many (non-professional cyclists) as one of the more difficult mountain bike races in the world.
“It’s basically a road race,” Leipheimer said. “It’s long and not that technical and it’s all above 10,000 feet. I think I need to challenge him to something more technical.”
One can imagine the Team RadioShack lawyers scrambling to amend the contracts for Leipheimer and Armstrong to include provisions dealing with mud-related injuries.
So next time you hear a cyclist in Starbucks waxing poetic about a man named Levi Leipheimer, consider yourself informed enough to know he’s not a poet. The cyclist may disagree though.
(Be sure to check out Part 1 of our interview, with Leipheimer discussing an upcoming fund-raising ride to benefit the City of Santa Rosa).
-- David Undercoffler
Photos: (Top): Levi Leipheimer rides during stage one of the 2009 Tour de France. Credit: Stephane Mantey / Presse Sports
(Middle): Astana's Levi Leipheimer is seen with his injured wrist a day after crashing at the end of stage 12 in the 2009 Tour de France. Credit: Nicolas Bouvy / EPA
(Bottom): Alberto Contador, left, Levi Leipheimer center, and Andreas Kloden, right, during stage ten of the 2009 Tour de France. Credit: Bernard Papon/Presse Sports