Losing Leipheimer

LeipheimergalThe withdrawal of Levi Leipheimer from the 2009 Tour de France due to a broken wrist is a sad twist for the race. It’s a loss on a number of levels, though it doesn’t change the race in the way some may think.

The first, biggest loss is that to Leipheimer himself. He was on stellar form and would possibly have had his second podium finish at the Tour. But this is yet another year where Leipheimer’s potential remains a question mark. Just what can he do as a leader?

The second is obviously to Astana. Only one other team in history has been able to use a guy sitting in the top five on GC to help control the race. When you think of legendary watchdogs, it is hard to find one more capable than Leipheimer.

Psychologically, Lance Armstrong has experienced a setback. Armstrong places a premium on riders’ whose loyalty is beyond question. That said, still has plenty of support in the form of Andreas Kloden and Yaroslav Popovych for when the race hits the high Alps and Mont Ventoux.

Unless Armstrong completely detonates on Mont Ventoux, the 2009 Tour de France will recalibrate our ideas about what a cyclist can achieve as he ages. Even if Contador wins the race, fewer people will think a guy who has had his 35th birthday is incapable of winning a Grand Tour. The question in Leipheimer’s case is will he ever be presented with an opportunity to arrive at the start of a Grand Tour properly trained and supported for unquestioned leadership.

The best thing that could happen for Leipheimer is to take his time healing up and then build back up for a run at the Vuelta a Espana. Of course, should Contador not win the Tour de France—and Armstrong doesn’t have to win, Contador just has to lose—he will likely want his own shot at the Vuelta which would resign Leipheimer yet again to the roll of World’s Finest Domestique.

But what does Leipheimer’s absence really do to the Tour?  It means very little to the competition between Armstrong and Contador on a direct basis. Though it is true that Andy Hampsten was forced to chase Bernard Hinault on one occasion in the Alps at the ’86 Tour, it is almost impossible to conceive of a situation in which Leipheimer would have been asked (and Bruyneel would have allowed) to chase down his own teammate. In short, Leipheimer’s greatest threat to Contador was psychological; knowing Leipheimer was loyal to Amstrong may have made him something of a deterrent to Contador.

Leipheimer’s greatest use was always in controlling the attacks of other teams. As a result, his absence will make it harder for Astana to neutralize other teams late in a stage. While that fact may strike many of you as obvious to the point of stupidity, the upshot is truly interesting.

Late-stage attacks from the likes of Carlos Sastre, Andy Schleck or Christian Vande Velde (it seems a little unlikely that Bradley Wiggins or Tony Martin will mount a stunning attack) will give both Armstrong and Contador an opportunity to follow and counterattack. A less neutralized competition should actually increase the fireworks between Astana’s two leaders.

And what of Leipheimer’s post-recovery future? It simply can’t be guessed. Had anyone suggested Leipheimer would return to Bruyneel’s fold to both achieve his best-ever form and be reduced to a support role at Grand Tours, most observant cycling fans would have scoffed. It’s a new take on irony, huh?

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

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  1. Robot

    Do you really think Klöden is loyal to Armstrong? I would think that, given his own modest GC pretensions, and the many years he’s spent racing on rival teams, that he would be ambivalent at best.

    Also, I think, unfortunately, Levi is never going to win a Grand Tour. Unless Lance somehow finds a way to beat Contador this year, there’s just no precedent for guys North of 35 winning the big ones. Even if Lance wins, Levi is not Lance. Right?

  2. Lachlan

    yep I think this has to be good news for a potentially more exciting back and forth between Lance and Alberto. (sorry to use the words ‘good news’ for any rider having to withdraw! Especially with an identical injury to one I’ve had myself – incidentally with the same overnight delay… rode home from the crash, woke up next day and had to go to hospital!)

    Again all in the subtleties here – Levi would not likely have chased Contador directly, but he would have been more likely to pull back attacks with Lance on his wheel, than with Contador.

    Lance made quite clear early season efforts to support Levi and earn his dues come the tour… now that all counts for nothing. And mentally it gives one small chip back to Contador who is on the wrong side of most of the Astana mind-game. (though not the athletic results game so far!)

    While I can’t now decide whether I want the alps to clear it all up, OR would rather see the Astana soap opera play out to the Ventoux! …it does perhaps make my personal hope more likely: to see Andy S. take them both out, and down a peg! :+)

  3. bikesgonewild

    …damn…what an abject & absolute shame for levi…as you’ve pointed out, he was in a very unique position, riding support but doing it from the strength of a top five g.c. placement…

    …levi has never been an “exciting” rider (lord knows, i’ve joked about it…ya, ya, hard to believe, i know) but the man is solid, his commitment could never be questioned & he deserves huge respect…
    …you could tell that he cherished his role of riding for armstrong in this tour, as did lance for he, in the tour of california…tit for tat, even though the stakes are obviously greater here…

    …so, yes, the dynamics have changed both within astana & in how other teams race against them & in a sense it will strengthen the armstrong/contador contretemps…

    …the vuelta ???…ya, maybe but that’s down the road & as you’ve suggested, that gets to play out based on the results of this tour…& you’re right, the whole situation is extremely ironic…more so than liephiemer, the particular fact that we’re even talking about a 37 year old bike racer contending for the lead…

    …***non sequitur***…my “andy rooney”…why doesn’t the uci mandate that rain gear be logo-ed like every other article of a team’s kit…
    …today’s stage, like several days of the toc looked like a high end club ride for the most part…
    …i know budgets are tight but c’mon guys…it’s all part of the spectacle…

  4. Author

    I don’t have any reason to think Kloden is loyal to Armstrong, but I do think he’ll be loyal to the team. What that means exactly is Kloden won’t chase down either Armstrong or Contador if they go up the road and that he can be counted on to bury himself to shut down a Schleck or Sastre, etc. Not having Levi means fewer bullets for all those targets.

    Given the gaps to guys like Sastre and Evans, I don’t actually think there are that many targets anymore, so it may be that Levi’s biggest role–protecting the leaders until the GC shook out some–is essentially complete.

    I’ll give Levi, Kloden and Popo credit for drilling it to bring back an escapee no matter which leader was sitting on their wheel. We’ve no reason to think they wouldn’t be loyal in that way.

    On to those rain jackets … I’m working on a post about the travesty those things are. Get these men some rain capes!

  5. Fausto

    I don’t know that Levi can ever win a grand tour, he just does not seem to have that high end explosiveness on the climbs that Andy, Carlos, Alberto, Ivan have. He reminds me of Ulrich, he is a mini diesel engine. Can TT, ITT and churn up the climbs but never out climb the true climbers. Still, one of the best palmeres of any American in a stage race. Depending on what happens at the TDF, will JB owe Alberto big for Vuelta? Next year you figure AC is gone from Astana or whatever JB’s team will be. Levi riding for/with Lance (will he ride next year/rider manager) on Nike/Trek/Oakley/Livestrong, he would be fully supported for Tour or Vuelta. Could go after Giro, but maybe not as suited and would need to give up TofCali focus to peak for pink. A crappy way to have to leave the race, sorry to see him hurt.

  6. Alex Torres

    I agree with bikesgonewild: Levi seemed to be having a really good time enjoying his role. For me that makes the Tour a bit more sad without him, even though the racing and drama this year is still super. I guess it´s always bad when a racer has to leave with such kind of injury, and certainly even more so as he did, at the height of his form and from the Tour and all. I hope we can still see the best of Levi soon!

    Another great piece, Padraig 😉

    1. Author

      Fausto: Indurain demonstrated that high-end explosiveness is unnecessary to win a Grand Tour. LeMond’s 1990 victory demonstrated it as well.

      Lots of people who observed that Leipheimer seems to lack the hunger necessary to be a real champion, but what I saw in the start house at the ToC this spring was as focused and hungry as I’ve seen. I think if the stars lined up he could do it, and I don’t mean that he’s got a dark-horse shot, but that he could be a real contender.

      I’ll be stoned for this, but I think the evidence suggests he’s a more complete rider even than Andy Hampsten. Rolling Stone once wrote that John Entwistle had this misfortune to be a good songwriter in a band (The Who) with a great one (Pete Townshend). That’s essentially Leipheimer’s situation.

      Alex: Kicking ass with your team is always fun, but almost no one will tell you that experience is more fun than individual victory. Thanks much for the kind words.

  7. Lachlan

    absoslutely a more ‘complete’ rider than Hampsten – who was the quintessential pure climber, surely? And Levi is definitely on-paper capable.

    But I guess why most people think he won’t ever quite get there is that somewhat indefinable ‘something’ that most (not all but most) grand tour winners have. The slightly subjective feeling that makes them look and feel like a pure-blood big champion. Its exactly The Who situation.

    I think it partly comes from the moments that lift them from great to legend….. Indurain did it all the time. Lemond even in 1990 to Luz Ardiden. Armstrong to hautacam / attacking on ventoux to catch Pantani….

    Even before Contador’s 1st Tour, watching him on the Col d’Eze in the Paris Nice that spring was one of those Legend-status making moments. Andy S. at the Giro or this year in the Ardennes…

    Levi does great performances, at the very top of our sport, but I’m struggling to think of the truly Lengendary ones that would make him people’s ‘favourite’, rather than their ‘podium’ pick for a grand tour. (its the same thing with Evans btw!)

    He might bag one, and would deserve it, but most times there is going to be someone else you’d be tempted to bet the farm on first…

  8. Adam

    Padraig, I’d add on your last point about the value of explosiveness that I think LL would have won the Vuelta last year had Contador not been on his team. He was climbing better than Sastre on Angliru, and if he didn’t have to ride team-mate role up the climb after Contador went, it’s not inconceivable that he couldn’t have saved the 46 seconds he lost the Tour to to Contador.

  9. bikesgonewild

    “I’ll be stoned for this”…did you mean you were stoned when you wrote it ???…hey, truth be told, andy hampsten is, was & always will be extremely special in the annals of american cycling, so no slight to him whatsoever but i see liephiemer as standing on the next rung up the ladder…it’s just american cycle racing evolution….

    …& your entwistle / townshend analogy as regarding levi is both funny & spot on…

    …re: the team support issue…agreed, everyone wishes to savor the beauty of the win but nontheless it takes great character to sacrifice ones own better chances in the standings to help bring about victory for the designated leader…(this is sounding like something out of a political manifesto, sheesh)…

    …& on the rain gear thingy, i’ve never been able to figure that out regarding the generic tops, literally…

    1. Author

      Adam: You raise an interesting point. I do wonder what would have happened if Levi had been free to play his hand.

      BGW: Thanks much. I completely agree.

      Not a fan: I gotta stick up for Levi here; it really wasn’t his job to be exciting. That’s like expecting a guitar solo from the bassist.

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