Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Levi Question

Levi Leipheimer's record of three Grand Tour podium finishes is the best of any current rider who has yet to win a Grand Tour. Considering his incredible time trialing, strong climbing and the simple fact that his wings had been clipped in each of his three previous podium finishes, it was reasonable to think that were he to achieve undisputed team leadership at a Grand Tour he would seal the deal.

That is, until Stage 16 of the 2009 Giro d'Italia. Maybe he had a bad day; many riders do during the course of a Grand Tour. Or maybe he lost his rhythm after the mechanical that forced his bike change. Maybe he choked under the pressure of team leadership at a Grand Tour. Or maybe he just isn't as fit as the other riders. While the first two options are damning, they aren't as damning as the latter two. The one question regarding Levi Leipheimer going into this season, especially once Lance announced his return to competition, was when or if Levi would get a chance to lead Astana at a Grand Tour. He's already led both Rabobank and Gerolsteiner at Grand Tours (lest anyone forget) and had finishes that, while good, seem a bit like the blueprint for this one.

Cycling fans may have understandably thought that under Bruyneel's tutelage Leipheimer might realize his full potential at this Giro. After all, each of his Grand Tour podium finishes have come at the guidance of Johan. Given that Johan knows how to win a Giro and at the time neither Rabobank nor Gerolsteiner had achieved a win in a three-week tour, many watchers thought that the man who has already guided three riders to eleven Grand Tour wins might be the missing ingredient.

The (Astana) team's strategy looked great on paper. Send Popovych up the road to await Levi's attack and then tow him for as long as possible until the inevitable detonation.

But Levi just couldn't follow the accelerations of Basso and the other riders. Had his only problem been the bike change, he would have likely rejoined the group rather quickly. That he had great difficulty closing the gap and ultimately had to be paced by Armstrong said as much about Lance's improving form as Levi's lack of it.

Perhaps more surprising than Carlos Sastre's gutsy attack that deja vued his race-winning acceleration on l'Alpe d'Huez is the simple statistic Leipheimer has added to Bruyneel's resume: the first team leader lying in the top-three overall of a Grand Tour who couldn't don the leader's jersey and win the race overall.

Back to Sastre: It was nice to see him attack without Bjarne Riis in his earpiece, but had he really expected to make up enough time to ride into the maglia rosa, he should have known he'd need to attack at the foot of the climb, just as he did on l'Alpe d'Huez.

Menchov's 39-second lead may not be much, but with one individual time trial remaining, it seems unlikely Di Luca can put enough time into him in the two final mountain stages to overcome what he'll lose in the final, short, TT.

This will likely go down as Levi's best chance ever to win a Grand Tour due to his age and the presence of two other, stronger, leaders. He won't get another chance this season whether Contador stays or not. If Contador leaves, Levi will have to work for Lance at the Tour and then be too tired to lead at the Vuelta. If Contador stays, he will still lead at the Vuelta regardless of the outcome of the Tour and Levi will be left to support him there if granted the chance to skip the Tour to build his form back up following a long season already.

It's a shame, but Levi's largest ambitions for the season just got iced.

24 comments:

bikesgonewild said...

...the lad is a bit bland at times but you can't not (yes, a double negative) respect mr levi leipheimer as a racing cyclist...

...that being said, alas, what a lack his efforts provided on a very important stage in this years giro...

...& unfortunately, three "tours of california" (or even more) just don't add up to one "grand tour" win...it may be a case of "always a bridesmaid" & that's a shame...

...as you pointed out, this was the year when the opportunity for THE win was ripest...it now lies rotten at the base of the tree...

Jim said...

Wow, only three options. I'd offer two more:

- perhaps he has fewer genetic gifts than some other GC contenders, or not the right ones for this race;

- perhaps he doesn't have the right kill-or-be-killed mentality to win against world class competition at its best, which is is for the Giro and Tour, but perhaps not for the ATOC.

RMM said...

Levi will get to be one of those historical footnotes: could've, should've have, why didn't he.

Matthew said...

Levi lies in the elite level no man's land. He's world class, no question, but he lacks climbing snap (a devastating shortcoming in certain fields) and he lacks rage.

Padraig said...

All: Thanks for your comments.

As for Levi's lack for what I'll call the predatory instinct, while I've seen that in other cyclists (Hincapie is my favorite example), Levi has boatloads of it at smaller races, such as the Tour of California. It's possible that a Grand Tour stares him down, the wolf that backs down to a bear.

Is he the most well-rounded rider? No, but I do think he's got the gifts necessary to close the deal. He was going full guns in February and that is likely the biggest problem he is having right now. Unfortunately, this was probably not a great year to win the ToC, though there's no way he could have known that in January (or December).

Like I said, three options. I just don't see the other two as the root of his trouble. And I write this meaning no disrespect; I totally dig him and his style. He is butterscotch to Lance's chocolate sauce.

Champs said...

Are we talking about Leipheimer or Evans? Good and bad, both bridesmaids are similar on a lot of counts.

Levi does have the "killer instinct," unfortunately it just doesn't enter him until the final week of the race. That's great in shorter stage races, but always fails him in the Grands. He calls it "patience," the rest of us call it fear -- he's afraid to defend that leader's jersey for too long. If he could just take that risk like Evans would, his slightly-superior gifts would be just enough to actually win.

Joel said...

Bruyneel has 12 Grand Tour wins with four riders.

Armstrong x 7
Contador x 3
Salvodelli x 1
Heras x 1

Thanks, love the blog and your writing.

Padraig said...

Ooh, Joel, thanks for the correction. So many to keep track of.

frilly said...

Where's Contador going? Did I miss something?

I saw a video of Levi yesterday where he said he has been on form since January. Although he didn't say it was too long, you could tell he was questioning himself. That's a shame.

Lincoln said...

Everyone outside the US knows Levi is over-rated. Americans try to project everyone as the next-Lance, and that simply is not gonna happen.

brent said...

It was my understanding that the Giro was supposed to be for Lance. So, Levi was on fire during the ToC (while many were not). I think the whole Lance collarbone thing is the wrench in the system.

Being on form so early is hard to carry on this long, esp. when so many top level guys were targeting the Giro and obviously on fire.

I agree that Levi lacks the killer instinct and Di Luca pulled no punches the other day when he said he's never seen Levi attack. He just aint got it.

Padraig said...

Frilly: Once the team finds a sponsor to replace Astana, Bruyneel will have to negotiate new contracts with each rider. Contador is said to have several offers from Spanish teams. Of course, that doesn't resolve why he might leave, just that there is an opportunity for him to leave before le Tour.

Mr. C said...

Levi has always been a rider that neither hits big peaks or big valleys in his form. His biggest weakness is the inability to put in those massive accelerations that put other guys into distress and blow their morale. I think its simply not in his physical make up, which makes him cling more to being patient. A fits full of rage he is not, a great rider in his own right he is.

velomonkey said...

I like your theory of Conti leaving post-new-sponsor at Astana. Good one. Lance gets to try his tour and look like he didn't kick the guy out.

As for Levi, look, the guy is more Joseba Beloki than he is Di Luca, Menchov, Basso or Sastre. The only difference is Beloki's podiums are in a bigger race.

I like Levi plenty, but it's racing not nice guy awards. Why he kicked butt at ToC flummoxes me unless he knew he couldn't shut down a grand tour.

Anyway, enough talk about him. Nice guy, but he's even lamer to watch than Evans, there is no spunk to the guy's racing.

jza said...

Mr. C hit the nail on the head. With Levi's physical characteristics, the race has to come to him. In a simple race of attrition, Levi has as good a chance as anyone of being the last man standing. But he is genetically inclined to being a boring wheelsuck.

He's more of a TdF rider. Long steady climbs and several TTs. Giro courses are really technical and the climbs really punchy in comparison. All those little accelerations catch up with him.

All these "Lance gets the Giro, and Levi gets this, and Contador gets this" comments are ridiculous. Lance will race for the strongest guy on his team. He raced for Levi 'til he blew.

If Astana reorganizes, will Contador be there to be the strongest guy? That is a valid question. Seems to me that Bruyneel would be a fool to let him get away.

What makes more $$$, a Contador Tour win or the Lance Show?

Doug said...

Leipheimer is arguably, easily among the best five riders on the road today, stage 16 Giro results notwithstanding. Before that stage he had already held his form for the entire year - far too long.

And you have to ask, on any team with Lance Armstrong, who is really the leader? Riding in Armstrong's shadow is the price you pay for riding with him.

His Giro may be all but over, but I think we haven't seen the last of Levi.

Brooke Hoyer said...

Three or four people have made comments that together go a long way to explaining Levi's flat finish to the Giro.

1) Lance was supposed to captain the Giro team. When he broke his collar bone, that put a kibosh on those plans since there wasn't any way he was going to get back into form in time. Since Contador was supposed to get the Tour and Johan wasn't about to mess around with his schedule. That meant Levi gets it (since I supposed Kloden is either washed up without drugs or too implicated to headline a grand tour).

2) Which brings us to Levi's schedule. He was supposed to be on fire for ToC and then slot in as lieutenant for Lance. His schedule wasn't set to win the Giro.

3) Levi doesn't do well in a race like the Giro -- especially this year's edition. He's a great allarounder. But the Giro is custom made for a guy who is a climber with an explosive kick. Time bonuses with every finish, wacky time trials, and wicked steep climbs all the time. That's just not playing to his strengths.

I'm not implying that Levi ever had it in him to win a grand tour. Last year at the TdF, he was pretty close and might have had a chance had he not been on the same team as the winner. On the other hand, if he had been opposing Contador, Contador might have broken him on a climb and put more time into him.

Maybe he's just a one week guy.

LSIII said...

Hopefully I will never again have to explain Levi as an overrated wannabe.

XO-1.ORG said...

No mention of doping in this whole chain? Perhaps Levi is the first-place non-doper, or something to that effect, and that explains his not being in the running?

Karl Ulrich said...

Levi's only problem is being trumped up by the english speaking homers on tv and fans. He never has had a chance of winning a major tour.

He targets the Tour of California! Who does that? Second bananas who want to beat up on the American peleton. It's like targeting the Tour of Qatar. It's February and nobody of merit gives a damn.

It's not Astana team politics, it's not because he's a nice guy, it's not that he's not living up to his potential. It's that people, mostly on the left side of the pond, think he can do something he simply can't do. That's beat the A class peleton at the big races.

He hasn't failed, he's done very well for what he really is and he should be proud.

jza said...

Levi a 'non-doper'?

Gerolsteiner, Rabobank and Postal/Discovery/Lance Inc. are not exactly the 'clean teams', just hide it a bit better.

To say anyone that's been in the game as long as Levi, at the level of Levi is 'clean' might be a bit naive.

Regardless, Levi's playing the game to win, but can't seal the deal or counter attack the big dogs when it counts. Drugs or not. Just not quite a top-tier GT contender.

Without the American cycling industry marketing machine 100% behind him, he's a reliable top-10 guy or super-domestique/tt specialist.

Death Bredon said...

I thought that Levi had a chance on the ITT "to pull a Hampstein" and written himself a more prominent place i the history books. Alas.

Had he snatched pink on the TT, I believe with Johan and Lance as well as the magic of the leaders jersey on his back, he'd have worn it all the way to Roma. Not a sure thing, by any means, but a real possibility.

But just missing pink after that grueling effort in TT had to have been a psychologically deflating. He had to know that those 20s made the difference between being a favorite and long shot (as the London Books immediately reflected). Hence, his fall even from a podium position is completely understandable to me.

In any case, Levi's had a great ride, and will still be a valuable super draft horse for Alberto or Lance or somebody for a year or two more if wants to continue on. But sometimes the difference between very good and great comes down to just a few seconds.

Mark Babcock said...

You are all missing what is really going on. Leipheimer planned to go to the Giro as a super-domestique for Armstrong. Armstrong broke his collarbone, and Leipheimer rose to the occasion. He may be out of contention, but top ten in the Giro after the season he has had is nothing to sneeze at.

I hate seeing "Monday morning quarter backs" take potshots at giants like Leipheimer. It shows no class.

Da Robot said...

I said it in the comments a few days (or a week ago), and I still think if you haven't won a grand tour by the time you're 35, you're probably not gonna.

But, you know, grand tours aren't the whole enchilada either. Leipheimer has a very respectable palmares, and as for this Giro, I agree with those who say he wasn't meant to win this thing, until Lance busted his collarbone. So, he's done well as a stand in, but the writing was on the wall when he didn't win the ITT. He was never going to put time into the other GC guys on a climb or in a sprint. That he blew up on 16 only iced the cake he'd baked in the ITT (how's that for a painfully tortured metaphor?)

I like LL a lot as a rider. He's just classy in the way he rides for the team, even when he's the leader.

Having said that, he's not much to watch. No fireworks. No uphill attacks. No solo breaks. The guy is all steak, but not much sizzle.

OK, I'll stop now.