On April 1, while training in Spain the day before the Vuelta Ciclista al Pais Vasco, American Levi Leipheimer was struck down by a car and suffered a broken fibula. Not only did the accident knock him out of the Pais Vasco, for which he was considered a favorite after a strong early season that included winning the overall at the Tour de San Luis, but it also dealt a serious blow to his hopes of winning his fourth Tour of California.
Just six weeks after the injury, Leipheimer, who admitted that he wasn't yet at his best, still rode to an impressive sixth place overall at California. Since then, he's been working hard to rehab the leg in preparation for his big goal of the season, the Tour de France. Speaking to us from an altitude training camp in Utah, the easy-going American told us about the accident, his subsequent recovery, and his plans and hopes for the rest of the season.
Congrats on Tour of Cali. Sixth overall with a leg issue has to be considered something of a success?
It’s a good race to start with after an injury. It’s relatively safe, the roads are big, the peloton is small. So it was a good one to come back to. I was happy with the ride, but it could have been better without the injury. The Tour of California has always been a big goal of my season, so it was disappointing in some ways, too.
You looked like you were having a harder time with the leg off the bike than on it?
I didn’t feel any pain in the race. Walking and stepping off it is what would give me trouble, but riding was fine. Even during my recovery, I could ride well in advance of when I could walk. The way the muscles pull on those bones, it just isn’t conducive to walking.
So about the leg: Can you describe the accident?
I was out on a training ride by myself the day before Pais Vasco, and I got run over from behind. I didn’t hear it or see it coming. One minute I was riding. The next thing I knew I was on the ground. The driver told police that he didn’t see me at all. Afterwards, I was conscious, but I was pretty dazed. I was in complete shock. It took a few minutes to figure out what had happened. I realized pretty quickly that I was lucky to have walked away from it.
They weren’t able to do an X-ray there in Spain, but I was pretty sure it was broken. I went back home and as soon as I got to the U.S. I got an X-ray and, sure enough, it was broken—high on the fibula. There was no treatment. They said with rest it would heal itself and the bone would re-bond. Basically, it would take care of itself.
That was April 1. How long were you off the bike?
I got on the trainer eight days after the accident. It was only for 15 minutes to test it out, and it was super-painful. It loosened up slowly, and I worked up to being able to ride the trainer easy for 20 minutes twice a day. After about 10 days of that, I started riding again outside. Just easy, but I was riding.
At the Tour of California you looked like an Easter egg with all that neon kinesio tape.
During the race I had a ton of SpiderTech tape on. I’ve used it before, back in 2009, when I broke my wrist, and it seemed to work relatively well. But this time really made me a believer. At the start of my recovery, when I was riding outside without the tape, it was extremely painful. Then I got the tape, and the difference was amazing. It was suddenly not painful to ride anymore. And then I realized that if I didn’t tape, it would make a noticeable difference the next day. I’d be in so much more pain if I didn’t use the tape. I feel like it really sped up my recovery.
How’s the recovery going?
The bone is definitely healed. There’s very little scar tissue left, even compared to what it was a few weeks ago. But the strength is definitely not 100 percent in the leg. Everything atrophied, and my muscles just aren’t firing like they were before the accident. So that’s what I’m working on right now: building up that strength again.
Given the good form you had early season this must have been a blow?
Getting hit was a huge deal, and it’s taken a lot for me to come back. It’s been two months, and I don’t even feel like I’m fully back yet. But when it comes to things like this that are out of your control, you have to find a positive way forward.
With all the miles of time trials and not so many mountaintop finishes, this year’s Tour de France looks to suit you. How does the accident affect your build-up and chances in July?
That’s what everyone is saying: that this year’s tour favors the time trialists. So yeah, this course is definitely better for guys like me, who can make up some time in the TTs. But it’s just as much about the mountains. It feels like everyone is underestimating that a little bit. It’s a three-week race and you have to be good every day and you have to be complete. In the end, the strongest man always wins. I hope that I’ll be at my strongest by then. I’m okay now, but I’m still lacking something. The last percent or two is what is going to take the longest to get back. But I’m optimistic.
How about the Olympics?
That’s tricky because there’s only one spot for the time trial, and they’re going to pick the team in the next few weeks. I probably won’t get picked because they are going to have to look at results up 'til now. I’m still a bit of a question mark. And at the same time, Dave [Zabriskie] has just been killing it. The TT he did in California and then in Greenville [at the National Championships], he’s just flying right now.
The other thing is, there are a couple of races in the U.S. that I’d like to defend my title at: Utah and Colorado. So while I’d really like to go to the Olympics again, if it doesn’t happen it won’t be the end of the world because it will allow me to focus on those other goals. I’m preparing myself to look at it in a positive way.
But next up is Tour de Suisse, which you won last year. Can you do it again?
Basically I look at Suisse as a chance to finish recovering and building back to 100 percent. I don’t have a lot of expectations. I want to support the team and work hard to get myself ready for France. If I can walk away from Switzerland close to 100 percent, it would be a success.