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February 15-21, 2006

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Levi Leipheimer

Full Press: Levi Leipheimer addresses the press in advance of the Amgen Tour.

King of the Hills

Who knows the ups and downs of North Bay roads better than Tour de France veteran Levi Leipheimer? Santa Rosa's super cyclist helps to inaugurate the Tour of California.

By Michael Shapiro

Just about everyone knows Lance Armstrong's story: a miraculous recovery from near-fatal metastatic cancer followed by seven straight victories in cycling's most prestigious race, the Tour de France. But few people know about Levi Leipheimer, the Santa Rosa cyclist who overcame his own life-threatening health challenges to become one of the world's fastest bike racers. That may change this month during the inaugural Amgen Tour of California, a weeklong bicycle race commencing Feb. 19 that's modeled after the Tour de France.

Now that Armstrong has retired, Leipheimer, who finished sixth in last year's Tour de France, may be poised to become the next great American cyclist. For Leipheimer, there would be no better start to the first year of the post-Lance era than winning the Tour of California.

"This is the biggest race U.S. cycling has seen," Leipheimer says during a recent press conference at a Santa Rosa gym. An invitation-only race, it includes top European and American squads. As exercise bikes and treadmills whirr in the background, Leipheimer adds, "I know all the roads [in the North Bay]—it would mean a lot to win here."

And he really means here. Santa Rosa has the honor of being the finish line for the first stage on Monday, Feb. 20. This Presidents' Day, around 2pm, more than a hundred of the world's fastest cyclists in a rainbow of team jerseys will ride three laps—at speeds well above the posted limits for cars—around Santa Rosa's Courthouse Square, concluding the first full day of the Tour of California.

Race organizers expect the tour to attract more than 1 million fans, who will cheer and shout as their favorite racers zip by along the 600-mile, seven-stage route. Millions more will see Tour of California highlights during an hour-long recap broadcast nightly on ESPN2.

The eight-day race, featuring 16 teams totaling 128 riders enduring a combination of long stages and time trials, begins with a 1.9-mile San Francisco prologue at the Ferry Building that sprints along the Embarcadero and up Bay Street, concluding with a climb up Telegraph Hill to Coit Tower.

Though Leipheimer isn't a sprinter and does best on long, steep mountain ascents, he hopes to capture the prologue so he can wear the winner's golden jersey on the Stage 1 ride into Santa Rosa. The 84-mile first stage begins Monday at 11am in Sausalito and traverses the Marin Headlands, the Pt. Reyes National Seashore and the Sonoma County coast, then shoots between Sebastopol and Graton on Occidental Road, culminating with the technical three-lap finish around downtown Santa Rosa.

On Tuesday, riders start in Martinez and finish 95 miles later in San Jose's Guadalupe River Park. Wednesday is a 17-mile time trial race in San Jose on an undulating course along the Chesbro and Calero reservoirs. From San Jose, the race continues down the Monterey Peninsula and hilly Highway 1 through Big Sur, to San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara, with the ultimate finish in Redondo Beach. (For more details about the route and the race, see sidebar, "Wheels of Fire.")

Leipheimer, 32, is thrilled to have a chance to race on his home turf. "We've always had to compete and live in Europe. In between races, we go to our second homes, not our home-homes," he says. "Now we finally have a world-class event in our own backyard."

Standing 5-foot-7 and weighing just 140 pounds, Leipheimer is not an imposing athlete, but he's immensely talented and driven. A native of Montana who rides for Germany's Gerolsteiner (a mineral water company) team, Leipheimer has competed four times in cycling's most prestigious—and most grueling—race, the Tour de France. One year, he crashed in a terrible pile-up and broke his pelvis, forcing him to withdraw from the Tour; the other three Tours, in a field of 198 riders, he finished in the top 10. Last year's sixth place in France was the highest American finish after Tour champion Armstrong.

Remarkably, bike racing wasn't Leipheimer's first sport. He often rode to stay in shape for his first love, downhill ski racing. When he was 17, during a downhill race at Jackson Hole, Levi had a nightmarish ski accident, compressing several vertebrae. Part of his therapy was to keep riding his bike; he got so good so fast that he turned pro when he was 20.

The back injury is just one health challenge Leipheimer has overcome. When he was a two-year-old living in Montana, he was kicked so brutally in the gut by a horse that his large intestine split open. It was a ferocious blow that might have ended most people's dreams of becoming a professional athlete. The injury created excessive scar tissue, and by 2002, Leipheimer had an intestinal blockage that required surgery. He was bedridden for two weeks after the surgery, his weight dropping to just 120 pounds.

But Leipheimer keeps bouncing back, keeps getting better and keeps setting his sights higher. "He's got his eyes on the prize," says Jim Keene, co-owner of Santa Rosa's NorCal Bike Sport. "There's a determination about that man, a rare single-mindedness—it's obvious when you meet him. He's incredibly focused."

Leipheimer's close friend and riding buddy, Marc Hagenlocher, agrees. "Levi is an extreme talent, but what's amazing is his work ethic. His goal is to keep getting faster. Everything he does is for that one purpose: what he eats, what he drinks, when he rests." Hagenlocher, a former bike racer who is now a manager at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, continues. "It's easy to say, 'I'm gonna train harder than everyone else,' but it's much harder to do it. Levi does it."

Hagenlocher says Leipheimer's small size is a big advantage. "He's carrying less weight over the hills, and he gets a better draft in the pace line." In other words, Leipheimer can shelter himself from headwinds behind taller and broader cyclists and ride with less resistance.

Those who don't follow cycling closely may not know that it's a team sport. Most members of each team, known as domestiques, act as support, riding in front of the team's star and performing other tasks to try to get the lead rider the best times. Back in 2000, Leipheimer was part of the U.S. Postal Service team alongside Lance Armstrong, but didn't ride with the team that shepherded Lance to victory in the Tour de France.

Leipheimer's big break came in September 2001 in La Vuelta, the Tour of Spain, one of the sports three grand races. He was riding support, but when his team's leader faltered, Levi surged ahead and finished third, the only American ever to podium (finish in the top three) in Spain. Since then, Leipheimer has been a star in Europe. In 2004, he was a member of the U.S. Olympic cycling team, and last year he won the Tour of Germany, beating Germany's favorite son, Jan Ullrich, on his home turf.

Still, Leipheimer is not widely recognized in the States. When he walks into his local gym, the Airport Health Club in Santa Rosa, few heads turn. He's more likely to get recognized in Europe (during the summer racing season he's based in Girona, Spain), where he's known as one of bike racing's toughest competitors, especially in the mountains.

The Tour of California will traverse some steep hills, but as major bike tours go, it's not that mountainous. This doesn't favor Leipheimer, who played a small part in planning the route. "I tried to make it more difficult; I was pushing for more climbs," he says. "But the European riders [who train for summer grand tours] haven't really gotten into shape yet." With a sly smile he adds, "We don't want to kill them from the start." The subtext: Let's not make the ride too hard; we want the world's best riders to come back again next year.

Some European riders might not be in top shape, but Levi has been training hard for this week's race. "I'm not in the kind of shape that I get in for the Tour de France," he admits, "but I'm in the best shape I've ever been in this time of year."

The day I met Leipheimer at the Airport Health Club, he'd just completed a six-hour ride over the Geysers and Pine Flat. Every day, he rides over lush hills, out to the coast or over the steep mountains dividing Napa and Sonoma counties. How many miles does Leipheimer put on his bike each year? "About five times as many as I put on my car."

Leipheimer believes the Tour of California will become America's great bike race, and will inspire the next generation of top riders. As a teen, he got inspired by watching such stars as Greg LeMond, the first great American cyclist, compete in San Francisco's Coors Classic, a race held during the 1980s.

As focused as he is on this week's race, Leipheimer is, as usual, looking ahead. Asked if he'll have a hand in planning the 2007 Tour of California, he says he'd love to help lay out next year's race. "But my best contribution would be to win the race this year." The terrain doesn't favor his strength as a climber, but when the Tour of California concludes next Sunday, don't be surprised to see Leipheimer up on the podium.

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