Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack) lines up Saturday as an outsider for overall victory in a Tour de France that most expect to see as a battle between Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador.
Hanging in the shadows of that duel is just fine for Leipheimer, who is hot off winning his most important European victory of his career, at the Tour de Suisse in mid-June. He won it in typical Leipheimer fashion, by limiting his losses in the mountains and taking it back in the time trial. He erased a nearly two-minute deficit to Damiano Cunego in the final-day race against the clock to score a narrow, four-second victory.
It’s a strategy that sometimes frustrates some fans and media, who want to see riders attack to overall victory. Leipheimer staunchly defended his racing style, telling VeloNews that the most important thing at the end of a bike race is whose name is carved into the winner’s trophy.
“It’s easy to be armchair quarterback. It’s hard to explain to someone if they’ve never been to the Tour de France what it takes to climb 20km cols, four or five in a day, for days on end,” Leipheimer said. “At the end of the day, if you win the race, that’s the most important thing. I wish sometimes I could accelerate like Alberto. It’s pretty awesome to watch from inside the peloton. The fans love that, but when you’re in the race, well, this is a hard sport. Sometimes everyone is going so hard you cannot attack.”
After more than a decade at the elite level of the sport, Leipheimer says he’s smart enough and honest enough with himself to recognize his own strengths and weaknesses. Leipheimer admits that Contador is a better climber, but he is loathe to attack for attacking sake, especially when the downside is perhaps losing more time than expected after a hard dig that falls short.
“Alberto is faster uphill than me and the rest of the world. The only thing I can do is look at how do I get to the finish line as fast as I can,” he said. “You need to be thinking. You gotta do the best you can with what you have. I don’t have that acceleration like Contador. I have to calculate. The goal is to get from Point A to Point B in the least amount of time possible. That’s how I’ve always raced.”
That calculating style of racing sometimes doesn’t create the same level of drama as Contador’s lethal attacks, but it consistently delivers victories. Leipheimer has earned three grand tour podiums (third in the 2007 Tour, third in the 2001 Vuelta a Espana and second in the 2008 Vuelta). As well, he’s won the Dauphiné, the Tour of Germany, the Vuelta a Castilla y León and the Tour de Suisse, not to mention three straight Tours of California, all with his trademark strategy of limiting losses in the mountains and delivering a strong performance in the time trial.
“I believe when I am strong, I can go toe-to-toe with these guys. Maybe I am not attacking, but I am going to be annoyingly close and never have a bad day, and sometimes I pull out a time trial like I did at the Tour de Suisse,” he said. “If I am strong enough to attack, it’s because I believe I can go all the way to the finish. To do that against guys like Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador, you have to be damn strong. There are a lot of riders who attack just to get on TV. Maybe they feel the pressure of someone making a comment. Someone says, ‘hey, we never see you attack,’ so they attack. When we’re sitting in the peloton and we see someone go, you know it’s not going to work. Maybe it makes the race more exciting, but it’s not going to change the race.”