Levi Leipheimer: The King of CaliforniaBy Rick Scott
It’s 10 AM and the reigning King of California is saddling up. On his daily rounds spinning for up to six hours through the roads of his Santa Rosa kingdom, he’ll be accompanied by a few trusted knights who are happy to let the diminutive 5’7”, 140-pound powerhouse set the agenda based upon his majesty’s goals for the day. They’ll pedal through the diverse terrain passing dense redwood forests, panoramic ocean vistas, pastoral golden fields, verdant vineyards, and majestic mountain passes not for the timid. Cloaked in layers of brightly colored Lycra and protective headgear as he strides upon his shiny two-wheeled stallion, Levi Leipheimer is out for a training ride.
From his throne, Leipheimer casts his sparkling blue eyes to the horizon, transfixed upon the territories he is determined to add to his empire in 2008. His immediate concerns are in defending his monarch this month at the Amgen Tour of California. Looking ahead, his gaze his set upon conquering France in July and the world at the Olympic Games in Beijing, China in August. With such lofty goals of domination, it is no wonder Leipheimer is a consummate professional who is all business. Unlike others who have ruled flamboyantly with panache, this American ruler of professional cycling is a humble, grounded worker who is passionate about what he does.
When the eight-day, 650-mile Amgen Tour of California launches February 17 at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Leipheimer will start the short 2.1-mile prologue last as defending champion. Riders will race individually against the clock over a primarily flat course, which is a change from the first two editions that opened with an uphill course in San Francisco. A gifted climber and master time trial rider, Leipheimer won the prologue both times, earning the golden leader’s jersey to wear during stage 1 that finishes in the Butte, Montana native’s adopted hometown of Santa Rosa on streets lined with throngs of vociferous fans.
“Leading a world-class peloton into your hometown wearing the leader’s jersey was amazing. That’s a very rare and special thing for a cyclist. Having that honor the last two years are among the most memorable moments of my career. It means a lot to me to have led this prestigious race into my hometown and I’ve seen the impact it’s had on the community,” said Leipheimer.
Can he continue the streak this year even though the fast, flat course favors big powerful riders? “I’ve done some good flat prologues in the past so I know it’s possible. You have to go in with the intention of winning it and that’s exactly how I’m approaching it,” Leipheimer declared from his Albuquerque, New Mexico hotel room where he was attending a two-week training camp at altitude with his team, Astana.
Leipheimer was the last to start the prologue last year and the crowd erupted when he set the fastest time of the day to win the leader’s jersey. It was his first race “back home” with the Discovery Channel squad, the organization that he raced for in 2000-2001 under the title sponsor of U.S. Postal Service. Discovery Channel valiantly rallied around their leader and helped him protect the race lead all the way down the coast. Along the way, Leipheimer aided his own cause with a strong performance in the mountains near San Jose that shattered the pack leaving just three riders, including Leipheimer, to fight for the stage win. He took 2nd on the day in the same time as the stage winner, German rival Jens Voigt of Team CSC. Days later, Leipheimer delivered what amounted to the knockout punch in the stage 5 time trial in Solvang, padding his lead over Voigt with a crushing performance against the clock that virtually guaranteed the overall race win. His mission was accomplished two days later with his wife, Odessa, and family present to witness his coronation on the streets of Long Beach where Leipheimer donned the golden fleece as overall victor.
The win in California last season was one of Leipheimer’s primary goals. It seemed as though the victory helped him mature and achieve a new level of confidence. He went on to have the best season of his professional career, which began in 1997. Last July, Leipheimer won the stage 19 time trial at the Tour de France when he smoked the field in a stunning performance that confirmed his rightful place as one of the top riders in the international peloton. He finished the most famous bike race in the world in 3rd place, just over thirty seconds away from the win. Last Labor Day Weekend, Leipheimer attacked the best American riders on a steep climb in Greenville, South Carolina and literally rode away from the field on a long solo flight that earned him his first USPRO National Road Race Championship and the right to wear the red, white and blue stars and stripes jersey this season. Last year, Discovery Channel announced it would be their final season of sponsoring the team. The management organization behind the team, which supported Lance Armstrong on his unprecedented seven consecutive Tour de France wins, shocked the cycling world when they decided it was time to close shop at the end of the season. Thus Leipheimer will be racing the Amgen Tour of California with his third team in three seasons. That’s a lot of change for an athlete to endure, but he will have a few familiar faces on his new team, the Kazakhstan-backed Astana, under the leadership of former U.S. Postal Service and Discovery Channel director sportif Johan Bruyneel. A handful of other Discovery Channel riders also found a new home at Astana, including young Tour de France champion Alberto Contador.
About the move to Astana, Leipheimer recently told VeloNews, “I’m older now, and am certainly at a point where I know what to expect. I know what my job is, what my role is. I have switched to a lot of teams and been through that uncomfortable nervous feeling before, and that certainly has disappeared. But there’s still that excitement to come to camp, and to train with everyone.”
“Everyone” includes two-time Tour de France podium finisher Andreas Kloden. Does having the defending champion (Contador) and another race favorite (Kloden) on his team conflict with Leipheimer’s personal goal of winning cycling’s ultimate prize? “Obviously Alberto will be protected (by the team) with Andreas and I waiting in the wings. Andreas and I can pretty much look after ourselves. It’s better to have two cards to play than one. In this case, it’s better to have three cards than two. Arguably we have the best Tour de France team out there,” Leipheimer explained.
Last year as the three-week race went on, Leipheimer seemed to get stronger. Although his training plan is provided by his personal coach, Max Testa, Bruyneel, a masterful tactician who guided Armstrong to his victories, influenced the program. “Johan encouraged me to come into the Tour fresher and under my best. There wasn’t anything that was going to be super decisive in the early part of the race anyway,” recalled Leipheimer.
The strategy was certainly successful. This year, Leipheimer will be following the same race schedule as last season. He’s only glanced at the 2008 Tour de France route, but in the spring he’ll do reconnaissance rides on key mountain stages.
While every cyclist dreams about winning cycling’s Holy Grail, Leipheimer targets the Amgen Tour of California as well. “It’s nice having a shorter term goal for February, which really helps with motivation. It’s hard to train in the winter thinking about the Tour de France in July. The Tour of California gives me something to train for throughout the winter,” Leipheimer revealed. While taking a break from rigorous, structured training in September and October, Leipheimer enjoys riding mountain bikes a few days a week with friends. He’s not a fan of weightlifting, but he does do Pilates to build overall body strength during the off-season. Most of his real training is done on the bike. “I love the day-to-day lifestyle when I’m training at home. I’ll train hard with friends and I come home tired feeling like I accomplished something when we finish,” said Leipheimer. While most pro cyclists start to decline in their mid-30s, at age 34, Leipheimer seems to be getting better with age like a fine California wine. “Cycling is a slow process and the level of commitment is huge. I get more and more focused and more and more committed each year. But the process is very slow. The improvements you make are small and it’s a step-by-step process,” he said. “Obviously what we’re doing is working so I’ll keep following it. It’s a process of evolution and you’re a little bit stronger with each season that passes. I seem to get more & more professional each year, too. Much of what I do now is on automatic pilot. I was meant to be a pro cyclist. I love what I do. I’m reminded of that when I’ve ridden into my hometown wearing the leader’s jersey the last two years.”
Leipheimer vaulted to international attention during his exceptional Grand Tour debut with U.S. Postal Service in the 2001 Vuelta a Espana (Tour of Spain), in which his 3rd place finish made him the first American ever to finish on the final podium. With the Postal Service squad entirely built around Armstrong, Leipheimer moved to Dutch outfit Rabobank to be a team leader where he finished 8th in his first Tour de France in 2002. After three seasons with Rabobank, Leipheimer moved to the German Gerolsteiner squad for two seasons with whom he placed 5th at the Tour de France in 2005. In 2004, Leipheimer represented the U.S. in the Olympic road race. This summer, he’s expected to make his second Olympic appearance in both the road race and the time trial with the goal of medaling.
During the cycling season, Leipheimer resides primarily in Gerona, Spain, a popular hub for American cyclists on the European circuit. To pass the time he spends traveling, Leipheimer reads, works on the computer, and keeps up with email to stay in touch with family and friends. When home in Santa Rosa, Leipheimer lends his time to raise awareness and money for A Leg Up, a charity devoted to rescuing animals and animal activism, which counts his wife as a board member. The Leipheimer’s personally rescue animals and provide a home for a few dogs and a half-dozen cats.
With 136 riders from seventeen professional teams – 9 from the UCI ProTour and 8 domestic outfits – prepared to engage in battle at this year’s Amgen Tour of California, Leipheimer has his work cut out for him. New routes and longer, steeper and taller ascents and descents have been added to challenge the cyclists in the trek from Northern California to the finish around the Rose Bowl in Pasadena in Southern California on February 24. The field, including reigning World and Olympic Champion Paolo Bettini, and his teammate, former World Champion Tom Boonen, is perhaps the most accomplished ever to compete on U.S. roads. Team CSC, three-time winners of the ProTour and two-time winners of the Amgen Tour of California team competition, will be back gunning for the top step of the podium with an all-star arsenal. However, Leipheimer is pleased with his preparation heading into the race and is confident in his new team’s ability to support him.
“I know the routes although I haven’t ridden the new additions yet. Like previous years, the time trial is the most important stage. It’s the stage I’m targeting. I’m hoping to win the race again,” Leipheimer said defiantly before selflessly adding, “Or it’s possible one of my teammates could win it and that would be okay as well.”
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Rick Scott is president of Great Scott P.R.oductions, an entertainment and sports public relations, marketing and management boutique. He can be contacted through www.greatscottpr.com.