LES HERBIERS, France — In a survey of 94 Tour de France team managers and riders conducted by L’Équipe on Tuesday, only three mentioned Levi Leipheimer as a potential podium pick. The three men to choose the 37-year-old American as a potential third-place finisher were two former teammates, Tom Boonen of Quick Step and Vladimir Gusev of Katusha, and his current Team RadioShack cohort Chris Horner. Incidentally, no one picked 39-year-old Horner to finish on the podium.
That’s not surprising. The experts say that the two Americans are too old to figure highly in a three-week grand tour, especially this 98th edition of the world’s greatest race that is filled with mountaintop finishes, hilltop finishes, too many back-to-back climbing stages and a pack of aspiring contenders eager to battle the outright favorites, Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck.
None of this bothers Team RadioShack’s Horner and Leipheimer, who have prepared for this Tour as never before. They are no longer going into the race as helpers for a single team leader — both men rode for Lance Armstrong and Contador the past few years, while Horner was previously a hired hand for Cadel Evans.
Now, as co-team leaders on RadioShack with German Andreas Klöden and Slovenian Jan Brajkovic, neither man has the pressure of being a top favorite. They are the true dark horses of the 2011 Tour.
Liberated by team manager Johan Bruyneel from needing to gain selection for the Tour (he was passed over in 2009 for internal political reasons at Team Astana), Horner has raced less than any other Tour rider this year and focused on building toward specific goals.
Horner’s first race this year was the March 21-27 Volta a Catalunya, where he finished fourth overall, 35 seconds behind winner Contador. The following week, he helped Klöden win the Tour of the Basque Country, where defending champ Horner still came in second, only 47 seconds back. And then, after five weeks of training back home, he won the Amgen Tour of California, 38 seconds ahead of Leipheimer.
It was after his stunning solo mountaintop stage win on San Jose’s Sierra Road that Horner famously told the media at the California race: “With the exception of Alberto Contador I think there isn’t anybody who can drop me!”
Over the coming three weeks, Horner will get the chance to prove the veracity of those words. And he’ll start this Tour fresher than any other contender. He has had just 20 days of racing in 2011, compared with 43 days for Contador and 42 for Schleck.
With no racing in June, Horner first recovered from his California win and then spent five weeks preparing for the Tour at his San Diego home, focusing on eating healthy to keep his weight down to a skinny 140 pounds, gradually building up his power with motor-paced rides and working on his stamina with long training runs into the mountains of Southern California.
On his last big day of training last week, his SRM told him he covered 205.3km in just over six hours, climbed 9,315 vertical feet (2,840 meters) and averaged 246.6 watts of power (with a maximum of just over 400 watts on the last hill 20 minutes from home).
Asked how he felt going into the Tour, Horner told VeloNews, “I feel very good. Certainly, (my form at) California was exceptional. I took a good rest after Cali … and I’m trying to find that form again. I hope it reappears somewhere during the Tour. At the moment it’s close. I think I need a day or two of racing before we get in the power zone.”
Despite having not raced for almost seven weeks, Horner said he was not concerned about reacquainting himself with a fast-moving peloton.
“No. I normally fly into any European race on Thursday and race Saturday. And that means I’ve normally been out three weeks or so beforehand,” he said. “Some guys like to do a small race before starting a big one, but I prefer the hit-and-run approach.”
But what about this Sunday’s team time trial, when he’ll have to be racing at the highest intensity of the Tour? Horner admitted he hadn’t ridden one since the start of the 2009 Giro — when with Armstrong, Brajkovic, Leipheimer and Yaroslav Popovych his Astana team took third in a 20.5km TTT, just 13 seconds behind the winner.
“No trouble riding with the guys again,” a confident Horner said, “I just need to see the course and know where the corners are, so nobody’s crashing each other. We will race the day before and that will open up the lungs for sure.”
Horner’s ready. And after coming in 10th at the 2010 Tour, when he was still a team worker, he’s shooting much higher this year.
Leipheimer says he’s better than in ’07
Like Horner, Leipheimer said he has done so many Tours by now that (unlike most other contenders) he didn’t go and scout this year’s mountain stages. “I think I pretty much know everything,” Leipheimer said. “That’s an advantage of doing the Tour so many times.”
He didn’t do his first Tour until age 28, in 2002, and he has since finished eighth, ninth, sixth, 13th, third (in 2007) and 13th. He didn’t start in 2008 and crashed out in ’03 and ’09. He knows that the only “new” climb on this year’s course is the very first one in the Pyrénées on stage 12, the Cat. 1 Hourquette d’Ancizan, which he said, “We’ll just ride over (being) the second to last one (before Luz-Ardiden).” No problem.
Asked to compare his current form (after coming off a stunning overall victory in the Tour of Switzerland) with his pre-Tour condition four years ago, Leipheimer said, “Right now I’m better than I was in ’07. I actually did the Dauphiné that year and I wasn’t great at the Dauphiné. [He finished 24th]. And when I started the Tour I was pretty fresh but a little out of shape.”
Leipheimer was riding on the Discovery Channel team that year as a co-leader with Contador. The American ended up riding support for the Spaniard and yet still came in third overall, only 31 seconds behind Contador (and eight seconds behind runner-up Cadel Evans), after he brilliantly won the final time trial. The following year, when their Astana team was barred from the Tour, Leipheimer rode support for Contador at the Vuelta a España — and managed to place second to his teammate, only 46 seconds back.
This year, the Team RadioShack rider will be challenging Contador, who (subject to his pending doping verdict) is coming off an unbeaten run of six grand tour wins, starting with that Tour victory in ’07. So how well can Leipheimer perform against the world’s best current Tour rider?
While Contador is well rested from his winning Giro d’Italia and last weekend placed second in the Spanish national road championships, Leipheimer has been relaxing after winning the Swiss tour. He won that race by moving from fourth to first on the final day with one of his strongest-ever time-trial performances, taking more than two minutes out of race leader Damiano Cunego in 32.1km to earn his spectacularly slim winning margin of four seconds.
Leipheimer’s task would have been somewhat simpler if he hadn’t lost 38 seconds to the other GC contenders coming down the spectacular hors-cat Grosse Scheidegg mountain on stage 3. It was reported that he “didn’t want to take risks just prior to the Tour de France,” but in talking to VeloNews about that tricky descent, Leipheimer revealed, “I came close to crashing a couple of times. I kept locking up my rear wheel. It was really slippery. That road’s normally closed to traffic and they only opened it that day.
“One time I was braking too late into the corner, and braking too hard. and I locked up the wheel. Another time my rear end swung around and I almost high-sided … so then I lost the group I was with. I was pretty bummed about that.
“I’m not a good enough descender to catch back up, so I ended up losing time. But that motivated me because if I was to lose the race by the amount of time I lost I would have been pretty upset with myself.”
Fortunately, nearly all of the mountain stages at this Tour de France have uphill finishes. The only one that ends at the foot of a downhill is the one to Pinarello, Italy, on stage 17 — and Leipheimer already raced that in the 2009 Giro. And then, when the climbing stages are over, he has a hilly 42.5km time trial at Grenoble to help finish things off.
Leipheimer hasn’t seen the TT course, but on his return to his Spanish base in Girona after his Swiss victory, he learned about it and its two climbs from U.S. teammate Jason McCartney — who isn’t riding the Tour but did the Dauphiné, where he raced the identical Grenoble TT. “Jason said the first hill is a big-ring climb. That’s good, I like those type of climbs.”
Leipheimer hesitated for a moment and then added, “That Tour time trial is a long way away, and there’s a lot of climbing and hard efforts between now and then.”
But one gets the feeling both he and Horner are relishing that thought. They may be the underdogs, but that’s the way they like it.