In high gear

Hit the road with Levi Leipheimer, Montana's first Tour de France contender



Levi Leipheimer balances on his bicycle in the starting booth and looks out on four and a half empty miles of narrow cobblestone streets. Metal barriers hold back a crowd five deep as far as the eye can see, their cheers washing over the Place du Glacis.

It’s Saturday afternoon, July 6, in Luxembourg. The event: the prologue of the Tour de France. Leipheimer is waiting for the starting bell and his chance to attack the miles of hills and turns that lie ahead. Millions of people around the world are tuned in at this moment, including cycling fans throughout Montana.

Leipheimer, 29 and a Butte native, is the first cyclist from this state to ride in the Tour de France, one of the world’s premiere sports spectacles, and only the third American ever to lead a team in the grueling 21-day, 2,028-mile race. This is Leipheimer’s first time riding in this event, and he is representing Rabobank, a Dutch squad named after that nation’s largest bank.

In the prologue, riders start the race one at a time at one-minute intervals. Whichever rider posts the fastest time of the day will start the race the next day with the yellow leader’s jersey. Cycling experts consider Leipheimer a potential winner in this stage, but more importantly, they say he is a serious contender for the entire event.

If the Tour de France were the Tour of Montana, it would start with a prologue in a tourist destination like Whitefish and finish three weeks later at the capitol in Helena. In between, the pack of cyclists, or peloton, would circumnavigate the state via Havre, Sidney, Billings, Yellowstone National Park, and Missoula. Prizes would be awarded after each day’s stage of 90 to 140 miles, and the rider with the lowest accumulated time at the end would win the entire race.

The starting bell chimes and the officials release his bike. Leipheimer lunges forward, his mind wrapped around his body, driving it into the dream he’s nurtured for more than two decades.

Sharing the dream
“I’ll be on that first mountain stage in a Rabobank jersey with tall silk-screened letters: Go Levi!” says Rob Leipheimer. “I’ll be one of the hooligans.”

Rob Leipheimer is Levi’s older brother by seven years and his unofficial ambassador to the world. It was Rob who first put Levi on a road-racing bicycle when the boy was 10 years old. By the end of their first summer of serious training, Levi was posting faster times than Rob on a 600-foot climb through Butte, which runs from the Federal Building on Main Street, north past the stark towers once used to lower men into the mine shafts, to the Friendly Tavern in Walkerville where immigrants made their homes during the copper boom. The brothers call this race “the toughest mile in Montana.”

Over the next couple of years Leipheimer would win this event repeatedly, and he still holds the record. Recently, in between a training trip and a race—the four-stage Route du Sud in southern France held in the last week of June—Leipheimer found time for a 30-minute interview with the Independent. Speaking from his part-time residence in Gerona, Spain where he lives with his wife, Odessa Gunn, a former professional cyclist from Canada, Leipheimer gives his brother Rob all the credit for introducing him to the sport.

“I got to tag along with [Rob] and his friends,” says Levi. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I was in a T-shirt and running shoes. They helped me to just basically have fun on the bike.”

By nature, Levi is not generous with words. (Odessa describes him as modest.) The 29-year-old seems almost oblivious to his status in the cycling world, even though he has been preparing for this race most of his life. When asked how it feels to be leading a team through the world’s most prestigious race, considering how many first-timers fail to even finish, Levi answers simply “I don’t know,” then falls silent.

Rob, however, cannot stop talking about his brother. What should have been a five-minute phone call to get Levi’s e-mail address turns into a 30-minute conversation. A 20-minute interview rambles on for more than an hour. As does the next one.

“It’s awesome to talk about your brother,” Rob admits. “I always wanted to be in the Olympics or be in the Tour de France. So it’s really a shared dream.”

Visitors to the Outdoorsman ski shop in Butte are in for the same treatment. The shop, which Rob manages, is one of several Leipheimer family enterprises started since their great-grandfather Edwin arrived in the 1930s. The marquee outside invites cycling fans to join Rob every afternoon for cable television coverage of the Tour de France, which runs through July 28.

Inside, a panoply of cycling paraphernalia charts Levi’s rise from club rider in Butte to workaday racer living in Spain. There’s Levi’s first jersey, white with blue stripes, and an Outdoorsman logo. There are jerseys from amateur teams in Salt Lake City and Belgium, jerseys from his first two professional squads, Comptel-Colorado Cyclist and Saturn, and a stars and stripes national team jersey.

The crown jewel, however, resides in a protective shadowbox. It’s Leipheimer’s jersey from the time trials of the Franco-Belge Circuit in 2000, his first professional victory. During time trials, riders compete against the clock, one at a time, unable to draft in the relative comfort of another rider’s slipstream, unable to do anything but withdraw into themselves and search for the will to pedal harder and faster.

Then there’s the speedsuit Levi wore in September 2001 during the last time trial of the Tour of Spain, in which he leapfrogged two places on the general classification (which ranks the overall positions of riders) and finished third to become the first American ever to finish on the podium.

The best previous American result in Madrid was three-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, who finished fourth in 1998 while riding for the U.S. Postal Service. Rob Leipheimer trumpets this fact as an omen of good things to come. Leipheimer’s performance last fall earned him the chance to change teams from the Postal Service to Rabobank, trading his water-boy duties for the burden of leadership and leaving the shadow of Armstrong to enter the spotlight of competition against him.

Rob promotes his brother relentlessly. Last Christmas when Levi returned home from Spain for two days Rob engineered a party of 150 invited guests. In attendance were family friends Gov. Judy Martz, who presented Levi with an American flag flown over the nation’s capital in his honor, as well as Butte-Silver Bow administrator Judy Jacobson, who declared December 26, 2001, “Levi Leipheimer Day.” Rob was behind it all, from the champagne and hors d’oeuvres to the biking video set to his brother’s favorite music. The brothers spent the day before the party snow-shoeing, just as they’d spent many childhood days together cycling, camping or just playing at the family’s second home on Georgetown Lake.

“What a great thing, to have a brother,” says Rob. “We fought and we palled around. That competitive edge was always there, but we never thought much about the age difference while we were cycling.”

An eye out for talent

Geoff Proctor, a high school English teacher in Helena, is a natural spokesman for Montana cycling. He has ridden in 15 state championships and won twice in what could have been a continuous streak of competition but for a broken arm he suffered in 1992.

“Truth be told, all of us are proud of Levi,” says Proctor. “My perspective is from one who has always admired talent on the bike and witnessing people who get the most out of themselves no matter what facet of life.”

Proctor knows talent when he sees it. He has ridden in the world championship for cyclocross, a multi-lap event combining road racing with mountain biking, served as Montana’s representative to the national federation, and helps select and mold young cyclocross racers for the U.S. team. He also coaches a squad of teenaged cyclists, the Dynamos, and is working, sporadically, on an archive of Montana cycling history.

Proctor competed against Leipheimer for the first time at the Sweet Pea road race in Bozeman. At the time, Leipheimer was 18 years old and had just begun racing in the most competitive categories of amateur cycling. According to Proctor’s cycling diary, Leipheimer crossed the finish line in eighth place.

“I remember then saying he’s not a sprinter for sure,” Proctor recalls.

But Proctor, who always has an eye out for rising talent, saw real potential in the young man. A ski coach, Proctor had already met Leipheimer at a development camp in Whitefish years earlier. As a teenager, Leipheimer was bent on alpine skiing and only raced bicycles to keep his legs strong during the summer.

Even then Leipheimer was methodical about his improvement, both on the slopes and on the road, and he possessed an uncommon seriousness about sports, Proctor recalls. Years later bike racing replaced skiing as the focus of his ambitions and Proctor wrote about him for a national cycling magazine in a column called “New Faces.”

“He said his main goal was to be on a team like the Postal Service so he could go to Europe,” says Proctor. “He felt stage racing was his forte.”

Fellow professional bike racer Jason van Marle of Florence recalls when he first met Leipheimer at a race outside of Helena. Leipheimer was 14 and van Marle was 16.

“I had no clue what was going on. Three guys got up the road and some other guy went tearing up to them,” recalls van Marle. “It turned out to be Levi. It was traumatic. I literally had not ridden with another person before, but Levi seemed to handle it quite well.”

That summer the two teens saw each other at every race, became good friends, and started traveling as a pair. Once, broke and tired, van Marle and Leipheimer camped surreptitiously on the campus of Eastern Washington University. The two young men were consumed by bike racing, oblivious to everything else, and desperate to measure themselves against the best in the world.

“We ate pork and beans at night over a camp stove,” says van Marle. “We ate oatmeal, pork, and beans in the morning. And we talked about how we had to get to Europe.”

This was the early 1990s, and American cyclists were establishing a reputation in the sport for the first time in half a century. Greg Lemond had just won his third Tour de France, and the U.S.-based team, 7-11 (which evolved into Motorola and later the Postal Service team), was a factor in every race they entered. But the real action was all happening in Europe.

As van Marle and Leipheimer saw it, there were only a few ways of getting there. The preferred option was showing enough talent early on to get channeled into the national team program. But since they lived in Montana, the opportunities for Leipheimer and van Marle to impress the national team coaches were limited.

First, their training and racing seasons were shortened due to the long winters and shorter daylight hours of the northern Rockies.

Second, the nearest races of any significance were a long day’s drive, and the best and most prestigious races were simply out of range.

“I didn’t go to the big American races because I decided that to do all that travel and try to make all the races was too hard to do logistically,” says Leipheimer. “So I just went to Belgium to do as many races as I could and try to develop.”

The two Montanans departed for Leuven, Belgium independently of one other. The fall after they graduated from high school, van Marle wrangled a student exchange with a host family. Later, after his own graduation, Leipheimer followed a friend from Salt Lake City who knew of an empty dorm room they could occupy for free.

In Europe, Leipheimer and van Marle were able to race almost every day at a level of competition similar to, or better than, the top level of racing in the United States.

“It makes or breaks you, and that’s what we had in mind,” says van Marle. “You hear it’s tough and since you want to race really bad, you go over there to see if you can rise to the occasion.”

After several seasons in Belgium, van Marle and Leipheimer got a place together. They competed in amateur events two, three, sometimes four times a week and reduced their lives to four elements: training, sleeping, eating and watching TV. Their apartment had broken windows and “an apparition of Elvis” in mold growing on the wall.

“It was an adventure, and I had a lot of enthusiasm at the time,” says Leipheimer. “Maybe I was young enough that it didn’t bother me and maybe I couldn’t do it now.”

The races paid cash to the top 10 finishers and from their respective teams Leipheimer earned a small salary and van Marle drew bonuses for finishing well. When other riders from Montana came to Belgium for the summer, van Marle joined them on sightseeing trips while Leipheimer stayed home and rested his legs. Until last year, Leipheimer’s dedication to the sport was not commensurate with its rewards. By the end of his first summer he was lucky to finish with the peloton and he didn’t win a single race for more than a year. After racing as an amateur in Belgium and before being hired by the Postal Service team, Leipheimer raced mostly in the United States. As of this spring Leipheimer still had only three minor professional victories to his credit.

“Being in the Tour looks great, but everything has its price,” admits van Marle. “People don’t realize what it takes to be a champion in any sport. If they did, they would think twice before trying to pursue it.”

The race ahead

Leipheimer may be new to the Tour de France, but he’s no newcomer to what cyclists call the major tours. Two other major tours occur in Spain and Italy each season. But there’s only one race that everyone wants to be in and it allows room for only 21 teams and 189 of the best riders in the world.

The first 10 stages of the Tour de France are dominated by the sprinters, as the cyclists pedal through the flat northern regions of France. Men with enough power to reach speeds of 40 mph in explosive bursts will parry and thrust attacks for days at a time.

The following 10 stages belong to the climbers, as the peloton rides up through the Pyrenees and then into the Alps. Men built like a combination of antelope and Swiss timepiece will pedal uphill in a merciless battle to see who can stand the pain the longest.

On July 14, Rob Leipheimer flies to Europe with his mother and his wife to join Levi, when, as he puts it, “the first blood is drawn.”

Scattered among the flat and mountain stages are three individual time trials—Leipheimer’s specialty—and one team time trial.

Last year Leipheimer rode the Tour of Spain as a backup rider for Postal Service teammate Roberto Heras. But Heras, a climbing specialist, consistently lost time to the leaders during the time trials and failed to take any of it back on the mountain passes. Meanwhile, Leipheimer racked up one good time trial after another until he was the de facto Postal Service leader without ever having attacked his captain outright.

“[Heras] wasn’t the [race] leader and he didn’t look like the strongest rider,” says Leipheimer. “So the team director knew better than to waste somebody like me who was riding really well.”

On the final day during a 23-mile time trial through Madrid, Levi struck a blow that literally changed his career. By posting the second fastest time of the day, Levi jumped from fifth to third place overall behind two Spaniards, denying Heras a position on the podium. In the parking lot at the finish line, Leipheimer broke down and wept. Two weeks later, he proved his performance was no fluke by posting a fourth place finish at the world championship time trial. A week after that, he left the Postal Service team and signed a contract to lead Rabobank through the Tour de France.

Conservation of energy

Being a team leader dictates that Leipheimer hide in the pack during the flat stages, minimize the time lost to climbers in the mountains, and extract precious seconds from his competitors during the time trials. Stage racing—in which both sprinting power and climbing prowess are blunted by days of continuous racing—requires relatively unglamorous abilities from a bike racer. Leipheimer, for instance, is a specialist in energy conservation and rapid recovery.

“I kind of stay the same and some people slow down,” Leipheimer says. “Other people are strong for a day or two. I’m not a very explosive rider. A sprinter can go pretty hard for a short time, but he can’t do it over and over.”

This spring, Leipheimer adjusted his training to compensate for his weaknesses. In preparation for the Tour de France he rode certain portions of the course repeatedly to ingrain the effort in his muscles.

“I’ve tried to work on my climbing because last year in the Tour of Spain there were a couple of stages when I lost some time in the mountains,” he says.

On the third day of last month’s Route du Sud, Leipheimer took command on an 11-mile uphill time trial from Aston to the Plateau de Beille and cemented his first major professional victory the next day. On stage 12 of the Tour de France, Leipheimer will face the same climb, this time alongside Armstrong and other serious contenders of the peloton.

As for the challenge Leipheimer now faces, Proctor finds comfort in his performance on the third day of the Route du Sud and the rally by Rabobank in his defense the next day. But the bottom line, says Proctor, is that Leipheimer is an inexperienced rider on an inexperienced team.

“A top 10 finish would be realistic and admirable, but I don’t know if we should expect more,” says Proctor. “It takes patience. He may not get top 10 this year, but in two or three years time it will be different.”

Proctor holds weekly meetings with his teenaged Dynamos and before they race he sends them off with a few words of advice. Two months ago, Proctor included these thoughts, and although he intended his words for junior riders, he says the message holds true for Leipheimer as well:

“Think about your goals for this race. You’ve worked hard. At the very least, finish the race if you are able. You must finish races before you can win. And you can only win if you’re willing to risk losing.”

It’s July 6 and Leipheimer is nine minutes, 24 seconds into his first Tour de France. He crosses the finish line in Luxembourg, head and shoulders tucked like a ski racer, legs churning like a runner. With 21 days to go, he’s in 18th place. The noise he hears comes from a crowd of people many times larger than the thousands who surround him now.

Half a world away in the Sportsman in Butte, Rob Leipheimer watches the prologue on television for the third time that day, quietly transfixed while his brother is on screen. For the first time, Rob is silent, as though holding his breath, as the dream unfolds.

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