The 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