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After Armstrong's Tour de France crashes, team focus shifts to Leipheimer

Levi Leipheimer, who helped guide Spaniard Alberto Contador to his Tour de France wins in 2007 and 2009, will now be getting assistance from Lance Armstrong. Leipheimer is in eighth place overall.

July 12, 2010|By Diane Pucin

Reporting from Morzine, France — On this first 2010 Tour de France rest day, Lance Armstrong rode a historic Alps climb, the Col de Joux Plane, one of the steepest of cycling's mountain rides.

It was a training trip for Armstrong, cyclist Levi Leipheimer said. It was not a ride done for fun.

Armstrong, 38, was working out his kinks, bumps and bruises, his aches and pains and maybe his wounded pride. His job for the next two weeks is an unexpected one — he will be a helper for Leipheimer.

But on Monday, as the riders took a breath, Leipheimer wanted to make one thing clear: RadioShack is not his team. Not yet.

"Lance will always be the leader of the team," Leipheimer said. "He won this race seven times; he's brought so much to cycling. RadioShack wouldn't exist without him. You see the fans on the side of the road, you can't just forget him just because had very, very bad luck one day."

For Leipheimer, who turns 37 in October, this is a new situation after years of being the loyal lieutenant.

He helped guide Spaniard Alberto Contador to his Tour de France victories in 2007, when they both rode for the Discovery Channel team, and again last year, when they belonged to Astana. So strong was the 2007 Astana team that, even in sacrificing his overall ambitions to help Contador, Leipheimer still finished third at the Tour, his only podium finish.

Leipheimer is only 2 minutes 14 seconds behind leader Australian Cadel Evans of BMC Racing going into Tuesday's 127-mile stage from Morzine-Avoriaz to Saint-Jean-De-Maurienne, a ride that includes a 15.9-mile climb up Col de la Madeleine as well as four other rated climbs. But the realistic goal now, Leipheimer said, would be to make the podium.

He is in eighth place overall. Ahead of him is Sunday's stage winner Andy Schleck, the 25-year-old from Luxembourg and Saxo Bank, who has seemed tireless in the mountains and is 20 seconds behind Evans. Contador sits third, 1:01 behind Evans.

Leipheimer was able to stay with the peloton during Sunday's tough race, but he didn't take his place until he was sure there was nothing more he could do to help Armstrong.

Armstrong's overall chances disappeared for good on a crash in a roundabout just as the peloton was increasing speed up the second-to-last climb.

"I heard Lance crash," Leipheimer said. "It has always been our plan that Andreas [Kloeden] and I were the insurance if something happened to Lance, and if it did, we had to take care of ourselves up there. Lance had the rest of the team to help him after the crash. Obviously they couldn't help him anymore."

Leipheimer, a three-time winner of the Amgen Tour of California who lives in Santa Rosa, Calif., understands the physical toll that a crash takes. He left last year's tour after Stage 13 when he fell and broke a wrist. He had a crash in the first stage July 4 and for a moment, he said, he felt despair.

"I crashed on the same side as last year and my wrist really hurt," Leipheimer said. "I got very depressed when I thought I was going home again. So I'm happy to be here. My childhood dream was to ride in the Tour de France. If I get dropped and am in 100th place, I'm still happy to be here."

After Sunday's stage and Armstrong's crashes, Leipheimer said the morale of his team wasn't good.

"Everybody was disappointed," he said. "We put a lot of work into this, a lot of sacrifice. Lance was our best guy with the most chance to win the race, so now the focus changes. I'll try to stay with the leaders and the minimum is to shoot for the podium and go for stage wins. I think Lance will go for stage wins."

Even as he discussed his own future — he is under contract for one more year with RadioShack and he would like to regain the Tour of California championship he lost to Michael Rogers this year — Leipheimer also has a prediction for the rest of this tour.

He thinks Schleck is the strongest rider. He thinks Contador is weaker than a year ago. And he predicts something good can still happen for RadioShack.

"The toughest stage left is on top of the Tourmalet," Leipheimer said, referring to Stage 17 in the Pyrenees on July 22. "So that would be nice to win."

diane.pucin@latimes.com

twitter.com/mepucin

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