What's Cool In Road Cycling

PCN Exclusive Interview: Levi Leipheimer

Peloton.nl’s Robert van Willigenburg joined the Rabobank Tour Team presentation last Monday, and spoke with several of the riders about this year’s grande boucle. Here is his exclusive interview with new American hopeful Levi Leipheimer.

Moment of truth for Big LL

Could this year’s Tour de France become an all-American one? Sure there’s Joseba Beloki, Christophe Moreau and Oscar Sevilla. But without real champs like Jan Ullrich and Gilberto Simoni there are not a lot of European competitors left for Lance Armstrong.

So is it going to be just a French camping holiday for Big L? This year, he may wake up in a different field than ever before. The American diaspora could produce its first results. Lance’s former helpers have become his major contenders.

– Tyler Hamilton, gone to CSC-Tiscali has grown into his role during Giro d’Italia. He proved to be a great time-trial specialist and a fine climber.

– If Alexandre Vinokourov can’t deliver, Bobby Julich (assisted by Kevin Livingston) may find himself in a unique position to become the front man for German Team Telekom.

– Jonathan Vaughters has matured some more and has a very strong Credit Agricole team behind him. He may be in better shape than his front man Christophe Moreau.

And there’s yet another student who could make life difficult for the Wizzard of Austin, Texas. A former skier born in Butte, Montana. A hot item after the Tour of Spain last fall, he made a surprise transfer this season to Erik Dekker’s Dutch Rabobank team.

Levi Leipheimer (28), big revelation in Vuelta a Espana 2001, quickly realized that he was to become more than a helper when he finished among the best climbers and time trial specialists around.

“Actually, my US Postal sports director Johan Bruyneel was the first to back me and even advise me in the decision to join Rabobank”, says Leipheimer, who just flew in for a couple of hours from his pied-a-terre in Spain to attend the team’s Tour de France presentation in Holland.

This Monday, only days from the start in Luxemburg but right after the national championships, especially his Dutch teammates seem a little agitated – expecting difficult questions as to why there was no Rabobank jersey on the podium the day before.

Leipheimer as always the relaxed guy, confident, talkative, feeling obviously at home in his new surroundings, maybe slightly more nervous than he was when the team presented him half a year earlier.
And even though at that occassion his team managers assured us that they would give him time enough to grow, of course he kows that the moment of truth is only days away. But his recent win in Route du Sud (by an impressive climb time trial, beating Aitor Kintana and David Millar) makes him and the team confident.

RvW – So, what are your expectations for your first Tour?
LL – “Well, let’s say that Lance Armstrong never even thought of winning in his first couple of Tours. He just wanted to learn a lot, and in the meantime everybody thought he was a one-day race specialist. It was only after he came back from his illness some years later that he decided that he had matured enough”.

RvW- But do you think the Rabobank management will give you the room and time enough to learn and look around?
LL- “Yes, I’m really confident that they do”.

RvW – When we met half a year ago, I asked what your most dreaded or most favourite mountain in the French Alps were. You couldn’t answer, because you said you hadn’t climbed any yet. I bet you’re well-prepared now, so how about it?
LL- “Haha, well, I think the 16th stage to La Plagne is really difficult. It’s a heavy climb. But on the other hand I do like Galibier which is earlier in that stage. You’ve got a great feeling of being on top when you reach that peak”.

RvW – But I bet you won’t have to climb that one alone. Are you confident about the strenght of your team?
LL- “Sure, I need someone to bring me to the beginning of La Plagne and I think I have the right people around me with Michael Boogerd, Beat Zberg, Grischa Niermann, Addy Engels”.

RvW – In Route du Sud, assistant parttime sportsdirector and legendary Dutch Tourwinner Joop Zoetemelk was behind the wheel. How was that for you?
LL- “Oh, yeah, this guy is really something. I do look up to this legend. We had to communicate in French – so we didn’t talk much – but I definitely wanted to show him something and earn his respect. That may have made me perform a little extra in Route du Sud”.

RvW – There’s no discussing Lance Armstrong, as he has already shown himself in Midi Libre and Dauphine. You haven’t really rode with the other favorites recently, so what was your impression of outsider David Millar in Route du Sud?
LL- “I think David has a lot of talent and a lot of ability. Maybe he could do even better if he took more care of himself, but he is already very strong”.

RvW – What about Floyd Landis, was it a surprise to you that he was doing so well these last weeks and got selected for the Tour?
LL- “No surprise at all. Floyd is a great talent and he deserves to be in the Tour selection”.

RvW – Is it difficult to have come from the American cycling environment? After all, the typical way of bike racing in America has not much to do with the way competition is in Europe, let alone the Grand Tours.
LL- “For me US Postal was a good environment and a good example. And US Postal have a way of selecting riders that are not only good time trial specialists but also excellent climbers. I’m a rider who benefits from that kind of approach. I really grow in a 3-week stage race”.

RvW – So know you’re the front man yourself.
LL- “That’s right – up to last year I was there to help Lance. I performed better earlier than expected and went to Rabobank to see how far I could go. That and the fact that Holland is closest to American culture. I think this is the best choice for me”.

The press event is over, Leipheimer helps himself to some tomato soup and sandwiches. We sit together over lunch, just before he’ll fly back to Spain for just a couple of days with his wife, former female pro cyclist Odessa Gunn. Teammate Bram de Groot sits in, commenting Levi should have eaten breakfast.
“Well, the breakfast on the plane was really really bad. I guess I’d better eat know” – This goes to show just the unforced way Rabobank handles these kinds of meetings.

RvW – So Levi, what if you were to find yourself in the top-5 after the mountains. Would we still be speaking to each other this relaxed, chitchatting about the wife or the quality of today’s breakfast, or will we suddenly have press conferences like Jan Ullrich had in the year he won the Tour, or the almost hostile sessions with Lance Armstrong?
LL- “Oh well, let’s first ride this thing. I think we will take our measures when the time comes. Maybe Lance will lend me some of his bodyguards”.

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