CN is featuring an end-of-season interview with America's top stage racer (for now), Levi Leipheimer. [Part one/ part two] The author seems to conclude that Leipheimer is happy at Astana, notwithstanding the obvious questions about whether he could be a grand tour leader on another team, the agitated comments of his captain, and Lance Armstrong rearing his head over Astana airspace. Here's the money quote:
"As far as my position on the team goes, I think that over the last couple of years I have had to improve my own ability," he told Cyclingnews recently. "For example, with Basso coming and Alberto emerging as one of the greatest cyclists in history, I think that all made me improve. It made me the best that I can be and I think that ultimately that is the goal.
"With Lance coming back, I think it is going to continue like that. I have had my best two years amongst these riders, like Alberto and now Lance. I just try to look at the positive side like that."
Leipheimer himself makes the case for staying with Astana. He starts by pointing out that his results are better than ever, which is undeniable: podiums in the Tour and the Vuelta, an Olympic bronze medal in the time trial and dominant season in the chrono discipline generally, and another Tour of California victory in which he takes some pride. He's had a great run with Johan Bruyneel the last couple years, by far his best since the Vuelta third place that originally launched the top-end phase of his career. So would he move on?
He says now that he will stay with the team, but also suggests that he briefly considered changing. "Of course the idea came up because people were suggesting it," he answered. "But I wouldn't be happy anywhere else and I don't want to go to another team."
Where he says "I just try to look at the positive side," I interpret that (FWIW) as an admission that he's not in a perfect situation. Leipheimer is surely well aware of his place in the team and the world, and for whatever reason has decided it works. Could he win a grand tour on another team? In theory, yes, but here are two reasons for him to feel concerned enough not to want to try:
1. History, as in his own. He did two years at Gerolsteiner, where he was the team captain until anyone with a German name (e.g., Totschnig, Fothen) made a case for contention, at which point leadership became less clear. Worse still were his Rabobank years, where IIRC the team's varied objectives made Leipheimer's annual Tour run something of an afterthought. Levi likes to build his season toward the Tour, rather singlemindedly, then give it his best shot. No doubt his pre-Disco years were fraught with angst.
2. Prospects: who else is going to give Levi the shot he (arguably) deserves? Garmin might have before, but not anymore. Columbia seem more intent on building around younger riders. The big European teams haven't believed in him before, so he probably doesn't think (rightly) that he can expect them to now. Twice bitten, thrice shy. And smaller teams can't offer him the support he needs (see Evans, Cadel) to have any shot at winning.
Maybe he doesn't get free reign at Astana, but at least he knows they'll support the program he wants to do, even if he is plan B in July. It's been healthier and more lucrative for him than getting hung out to dry by another team. I've been all over the map on Levi's career choices, but here's where I think I'm landing: he's not living his dream, but considering the alternatives, this is as close as he can get.