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 he 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.
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.
“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. 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.”
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.