Leipheimer on the move

Only four in field have ever finished ahead of American cyclist

July 06, 2006

In a sport ruled for so long by Lance Armstrong, fellow American Levi Leipheimer is hardly a household name. In the next two weeks of the Tour de France, he might become a little more familiar.

The consistently high-performing native of Butte, Mont., has reason to fancy his chances of becoming Armstrong's heir: Of the 172 racers still left in cycling's showpiece race that lost top contenders to doping allegations, a crash and illness, only four have ever finished ahead of Leipheimer - and one of those is now his teammate.

Leipheimer finished comfortably in the main pack in yesterday's fourth stage, won by Australian sprinter Robbie McEwen with a remarkable final burst of speed in Saint-Quentin. Tom Boonen of Belgium kept the overall lead, proudly wearing the yellow jersey on his home turf.

Leipheimer, who is 27th overall, is the first to admit that it is still early in the three-week race and that a surprise winner could emerge before the finish in Paris on July 23. Nevertheless, as others have dropped out, his star has risen.

"Someone could pop up and do really well," he said after yesterday's Stage 4, where he accomplished one of his top priorities for the fast and dangerous first week: staying safe.

Of having been previously beaten by so few riders in this year's field, he said: "That's the past, and this is a different year and riders get stronger and more experience."

When asked, Leipheimer names three riders who placed above him in the three Tours he's finished: Spaniard Carlos Sastre of Team CSC, the Discovery Channel's Portuguese climber Jose Azevedo and T-Mobile racer Andreas Kloeden, a friend and teammate of Jan Ullrich, who was among nine riders barred before the start because of doping allegations.

But Leipheimer is forgetting a fourth: his Gerolsteiner teammate Georg Totschnig. The Austrian finished seventh at the 2004 Tour, two spots in front of Leipheimer, who was then racing for Rabobank.

Leipheimer's spotty memory is perhaps not accidental. At some point on this Tour, he may have to shelve his own ambitions and ride in support of Totschnig if the team decides that the Austrian has the best chance to win. But the reverse could be true, too.

For the moment, the squad says that both are team leaders and that the decision on who is in the best position to ride for the Tour crown will be judged on Saturday's long time trial and their performances during the tough climbs of the Pyrenees and Alps.

The real racing for the overall title won't start until the time trial and mountains.

Leipheimer finished 56th in yesterday's 129-mile stage from Huy, in Belgium, to Saint-Quentin in northeast France.

McEwen dedicated his 10th stage victory in nine Tours - and his second this year - to his American teammate Fred Rodriguez, who crashed out of the race in Tuesday's accident-strewn Stage 3 when another favorite, Alejandro Valverde, broke a collarbone and dropped out.

Rodriguez's accident - he rode into a pothole - deprived Mc- Ewen of the rider assigned to lead him into the final stretches of sprint finishes, the Australian's forte.

But another Davitamon-Lotto teammate, Gert Steegmans, more than filled that gap yesterday. McEwen, still one of the most explosive Tour riders at the age of 34, compared Steegmans with a "locomotive."

"He did it just perfectly," Mc- Ewen said. "Even if I had written a script, it could not have gone any better."

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