Levi Leipheimer is One-of-a-Kind. I contend that a truer statement cannot be made. An absolute over-achiever with a bike under him. His cycling accomplishments help one understand the term, ‘Complete Rider.’ This great American cyclist does everything. Lets see, he’s a specialist at Individual Time Trials and lets not forget (though it seems the Tour has) the exciting and popular Team Time Trials. There’s only a hand-full of elite cyclists that can hope to keep on his wheel up the mountains and he’s got to be an excellent descender cause he sure doesn’t lose much ground once he’s crested those peaks. Sprints? Okay, maybe Cavendish beats him flat out with 200 meters to go – but you know, as crazy as it sounds I wouldn’t be too confident on that bet if that’s all Levi was focused on. When Mr. Leipheimer decides to do something it typically gets done. Singularly competitive? Oh-yeah. He’s got more competitive juice flowing than the populations of several relatively large countries. Sure. But the thing is he’s also helpful, decent, thoughtful, and generous to his squad. The epitome of a team rider.
You know, the term ‘One of a Kind’ can mean a couple of things. The first, most often used meaning refers to one being better than the rest. Perfectly appropriate. The second, lesser-used meaning refers to one being a member of a group, or category [read into that], a member of a team. Perfectly appropriate. Levi’s that rare combination of gifted individual star athlete who works with and for others to produce even bigger results. He goes about each day at the races as though he’s just another member of the team. However, his results are anything but. When so many Europeans fear him on the pro tour, how can this man not be a household name in America?
Levi started cycling simply as a summer training regime to keep his legs strong for downhill skiing competitions. We fans can thank our lucky stars that he chose pedaling for exercise because by the age of 24 he’d gotten enough attention with his ‘training’ that he was offered a pro contract with the then cycling powerhouse, Team Saturn. Now, right here would be a good place to list his many racing records. But how to cram them all in? I mean hey, a list of his wins alone would probably run 5 pages! He practically owns the Tour of California – won the last three. He’s won the Dauphiné Libéré, the Deutschland Tour, four top-tens in the Tour de France GC with a 3rd place in 2007. I don’t know what to list next. National Road Race Champion–check, Olympic medalist–check, podiums in the Vuelta–check, prestigious races and stages all over the world–check. This list goes on and on. He’s got more major results alone then some whole teams! Okay, I didn’t really research that – but it could be true. His list of accomplishments is seriously staggering. He’s worn just about every color jersey in the big tours. Versatile doesn’t begin to describe his talent. I have a new training regime for Levi Leipheimer – just climbing up and down podiums receiving trophies. Kind of a stair-stepper thing only with good-looking women. That’d be enough exercise for most of us!
A top cyclist couldn’t possibly time trial like Levi does unless they’d mastered the art of confidently suffering alone. The race of truth, right? No team, no draft, no wheels to suck back to the peloton if you have a mechanical, and often huge crowds watching and critiquing your every gear change. You’re on your own pal. Sure you have a team car there for flats and some managerial guidance on the radio; “watch it, sharp turn coming up; great effort you’re gaining on the leader’s splits; go for it, we have a rest day tomorrow.” But, that assistance is a bit limited. YOU still have to pedal the damned bike. There’s a dense crush of thousands of people all around you, helicopters above, motorcycles on both sides, but you’re oddly so completely alone. This ‘team sport,’ not only tolerates individualism here, it demands it. Levi eats these opportunities up. He’s One of a Kind. He excels in an environment where his solo performance will be measured one on one against the best in the world. Time and again he’s shown that he thrives while going-it-alone.
But in an era of self-focused pampered professionals, he’s an anomaly. He plays well with others. He has a fully formed appreciation for the importance of the team’s strategy, of the group’s efforts, of how he can apply his strengths to aide and support the collective good of the squad that he’s riding with. One guy doesn’t win stage races at the pro level. But one guy can make or break a win for the team. You have to be one of a group, One of a Kind.
While cast in a support role 2 years ago in the de Giro, Levi was incredible. At the finish he stepped up on the podium in second place having bested a really strong field. In a supporting role he almost won the darn thing! Cycling history merely records that the guy on his team benefiting from that support did win. Maybe Levi’s own words make the point better. Let me set this up. It’s this past July. It’s stage 13 of the Tour de France. Levi gets tangled up with Cadel Evans and they crash. Levi later finds that he has to withdraw because of a broken wrist while in 4th place in the GC. No, I’m not talking a hopeless 4th place, 5 to 6 minutes behind the leader. We’re talking a 4th place that’s 39 seconds back. They have about one week to go in this month-long grand tour and he’s 39 seconds back! He should have been on a suicide watch. I can’t get my head around that much disappointment. The next morning he does a short video with Lance and their director Johann in the hotel before he’s to be operated on. You gotta watch that video. Here’s what he said; “the pain in the wrist is one thing, but the pain of seeing you guys roll out without me is immeasurable.” You see, the race was about to turn into the Alps for a few days where Levi understood his ability to support the team on those climbs would be crucial. Rather than worry about a little thing like; if my body doesn’t heal properly how am I going to make a living for my family in the future – he’s genuinely sorry that he somehow let his team down.
One of a Kind?
By George Hurst, staff writer