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Leipheimer on New Path


LUXEMBOURG — Last Sept. 12, as most Americans awoke dazed and unsure about what the future held, Levi Leipheimer knew exactly what was ahead of him: a long, punishing climb up a mountain in the Picos de Europa range in northern Spain.

Leipheimer, then with the U.S. Postal Service cycling team, was one of the few American athletes competing anywhere in the world. Professional and college sports had gone dark within hours of the terrorist attacks.

At the prestigious Tour of Spain, Leipheimer and his teammate Chann McRae, Postal's only other American entrant, tried to absorb what had happened.

"It was surreal," Leipheimer said. "It was hard to stay focused. There was talk about stopping, but in the end we decided it was best to go on with life."

As the riders began the final ascent, Leipheimer (pronounced LYPE-heimer) dug in. "Show them what Americans are made of!" Postal team director Johan Bruyneel exhorted over the radio.

Leipheimer came in 29th that day, but he helped dictate the pace on the way up to Lagos de Covadonga in Stage 5 of the three-week race. It began the trip of his life--so far.

His eventual third-place finish in the Vuelta enabled him to jump to the Dutch team Rabobank. The newly minted 28-year-old team leader is considered one of the few riders who might give defending Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong a tussle.

"I expect him to be strong," Armstrong said last month. "That's what they hired him for."

Leipheimer finished 18th in Saturday's Tour prologue, 16 seconds behind Armstrong. Both men rolled in with the peloton--the main pack of riders, whose finish times are all recorded equally--at the end of Sunday's Stage 1, and thus are still 16 seconds apart.

Leipheimer's performance at the Vuelta did come at some cost. Postal's pre-designated race leader, 2000 Vuelta winner Roberto Heras, felt betrayed and the rapport between the two disintegrated, even though Leipheimer had the team's blessing to go all out. Leipheimer's final time trial result bumped Heras off the podium to fourth.

Leipheimer, a native of Montana who splits his time between California and Spain with his wife, former Canadian racer Odessa Gunn, grew up in an action-oriented family. His parents were skiers and ski instructors who owned a shop stocked with ski equipment in the winter and bike gear in the summer.

He wanted to be a professional cyclist enough to set out for Europe on his own as a teenager. Leipheimer lived in hostels and run-down flats in Belgium, working his way up from the amateur ranks to a succession of U.S. pro teams, ending with his stint at Postal from 1998 to 2001.

"I had the innocence to put up with a lot of less-than-normal living conditions," he said of his hardscrabble start in Europe. "But they weren't hard times. They were good times."

His drive later led his personal coach, Rick Crawford, to dub him "the bald bulldog from Butte."

Leipheimer also competed for the U.S. national team and won a silver medal in the time trial at the 1999 Pan American Games.

Although he won the Route du Sud, a Tour tuneup race, last month, Leipheimer comes into the Tour far more of a cipher to Dutch fans than his teammates Michael Boogerd or sprinter Erik Dekker. "He wouldn't be recognized on the street," said Renze Lolkema, a writer for Algemeen Daglad, the Netherlands' second-largest newspaper.

That will change quickly if Leipheimer rides well. The race is televised live in the Netherlands and thousands of Dutch fans flock to France to line the roadways every year. Rabobank's best previous Tour showing is a fifth place by Boogerd in 1998.

"I'm just so proud of Levi," said Rob Leipheimer, Levi's brother. "He had bigger goals than hauling water or riding tempo for Lance. This is something we dreamed of as kids."

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