As teenagers, Levi Leipheimer and his older brother Rob raced their bicycles up Main Street in Butte. They called the 600-foot ascent past the city’s abandoned mine shafts “the toughest mile in Montana.” Last weekend, after covering 2,028 miles in 21 days, Leipheimer finished eighth overall in the Tour de France, the toughest bicycling race in the world. And Rob, who manages an outdoor equipment store in Butte, was there to enjoy it.
As a Tour de France rookie, Leipheimer finished eighth, 17 minutes and 11 seconds behind the winner, Lance Armstrong. As leader of the U.S. Postal Service team, Armstrong won the event in 82 hours, 5 minutes, 12 seconds. During much of the race, Leipheimer rode in Armstrong’s shadow. With this fourth consecutive victory, Armstrong surpasses Greg Lemond as the greatest American cyclist in history.
While Armstrong dominated the race, winning two mountain stages and two time trials, Leipheimer conducted a low-profile campaign aimed at his personal goal of finishing in the top 10 overall. His best daily performances came during two mountain stages and the final time trial. In the Tour de France, racers try to win daily stages within their specialty. The countryside of northern France is the province of sprinters, while the Pyrenees and Alps are the realm of climbers. During time trials, in which racers compete alone against the clock, cyclists like Leipheimer take over.
Meanwhile, team leaders also compete against one other in the general classification, which ranks racers according to their overall time expended from the first day to the last. Leipheimer is the team leader for the Dutch squad, Rabobank.
On the 14th day, Leipheimer placed 11th on Mont Ventoux, and on the 16th day, he placed sixth on La Plagne. On July 27, he placed 14th on a 31-mile time trial to move from ninth to eighth in the general classification.
In the fall of 2001, Leipheimer made a similar jump on the last day of La Vuelta, the three-week tour of Spain. At the time, Leipheimer rode for the U.S. Postal Service, Armstrong’s team. By placing second in the time trial, Leipheimer vaulted past his team leader, Robert Heras, into third place overall, the best American finish ever.
Leipheimer received his first “real” road racing bicycle at age 10, and showed immediate promise. He once pursued an alpine skiing career and spent two years of high school training in Whitefish and Salt Lake City, away from his family.
Later, Leipheimer moved to Belgium with friends and tested his legs against the best amateurs in the world. Currently the 29-year-old racer resides in both Santa Rosa, Calif., and Gerona, Spain, the European base of many expatriate U.S. professionals.