Coming on Strong

He's no Lance (yet), but former U.S. Postal rider Levi Leipheimer has won the right to lead Rabobank, one of Europe's fastest squads

Quick study: Leipheimer in Spain     Photo: Graham Watson

LAST SEPTEMBER, ON THE FINAL DAY of the three-week, 1,851-mile Vuelta a España, 28-year-old Montana native Levi Leipheimer lived out the secret fantasy of every lowly support rider. Leipheimer, a U.S. Postal Service team member at the time, was riding for reigning Vuelta champion Roberto Heras of Spain, but after 20 days of inspired pedaling he sat in fifth place—just two spots behind Heras—with only a 24-mile time trial remaining.

"It was a bit awkward," Leipheimer recalls. "Roberto was the defending champion, but I wasn't going to hold back." He certainly didn't. His second-place time trial put Heras in fifth and sealed a third-place finish overall, the best ever by an American in the world's third most prestigious stage race. "Levi has always been a very good time trialist," says USPS operations director Dan Osipow, "but defeating the defending Vuelta champion was not something we were expecting." Three months later, Leipheimer inked a lucrative two-year deal with Dutch powerhouse Rabobank, which means that on July 6 he'll be leading one of cycling's top squads.
Of course, American success on hallowed European pavement doesn't turn heads the way it used to. This season, longtime Lance Armstrong lieutenant Tyler Hamilton rides for Dutch team CSC Tiscali; Kevin Livingston and Bobby Julich are the main support riders for German team Deutsche Telecom; and George Hincapie and Fred Rodriguez have both been ranked in the World Cup top ten. Levi just adds to the American firepower.

So does Leipheimer stand a chance in his first Tour? Perhaps. He took fourth in October's world time-trial championship in Lisbon, Portugal, and his Vuelta performance displayed the relentless consistency of past cycling greats. But his real challenge, says Julich, will be transforming from garçon to The Man. "It's different when the pressure of leading a team is on your shoulders." Especially if you have a team full of young guns ready to pull a Leipheimer.

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