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The Case For Levi

Levi_mediumI had a little trainer time last night in front of Universal Sports' rebroadcast of the Cinque Terre ITT and I now see Levi Leipheimer in a sligtly different light. I think many of us viewed yesterday as the big test, and by not winning it's easy to say Levi didn't really pass. He now sits 40" back of Denis Menchov, after the stage that was supposed to launch his Giro campaign into the stratosphere. Disappointing? Perhaps, but it shouldn't be. Here are some other things to remember about Levi's effort over this course:

  • He gained time in the final descent, chopping fourteen seconds off his deficit to Menchov from the last time check to the line.
  • After trailing at the first two checks, Leipheimer put up the best time by 30" over Garzelli on the final climb, and by 43" on the last descent. 
  • His 43" gap over Stefano Garzelli is the largest gap between any two adjacent riders on the results list, save for a few of the stragglers at the end. Translation: he (and Menchov) blew doors off the competition.
  • His gap to Menchov was 20" over 61km. That's one second every three km. Also known as a rounding error.
  • So to recap: he climbed well and descended well, maybe even better. He got stronger as the race went on. Once one accepts that he couldn't do anything to stop Menchov (save for dropping nails on the course), it becomes clear that Levi simply rode a great race.

Seen in this light, a better argument than the one I made yesterday (Levi doesn't have what Menchov has in finishing off a Tour) is that Leipheimer is about the best Levi he can be right now. So far that hasn't been enough to stop Menchov, and ultimately it may turn out that Menchov is simply unstoppable, or at least that this race suits him too well for Menchov to blow it. Bottom line: 40 seconds isn't much, so the strongest rider will win, and given how that designation is so subject to change with the passing days or variable conditions, I have no way to handicap it.

All one can say, though, is that Leipheimer has a slightly better defined history of peaking in the final week of grand tours. Menchov's two Vuelta victories were a bit front-loaded, so I wouldn't draw many conclusions from them. His most recent grand tour of real contest was last year's Tour de France, where I would describe his performance as consistent across all three weeks.

Leipheimer's last grand tour was the 2008 Vuelta, where he was also pretty consistent, even winning the early time trial and taking the lead in the Pyrenees. But where he climbed decently enough then, his best climbing was on stage 14, and he closed fast with another time trial win on Stage 20. The contrast is more stark in the 2008 2007 Tour de France, where Leipheimer was fairly anonymous until the first long ITT on stage 14, where he ran eighth. He then ripped off a final week where he placed fourth and second on two of the final three climbs, and won the closing ITT, coming within 31 seconds of winning the whole damn thing. Riders will vary their strategy to suit each course, so I wouldn't assume Levi is building for a third week peak in this Giro just because he's done so before. But it's an obvious strategy and one he's used to his advantage in the past.

Folks, we have one hell of a battle on our hands.

p.s. Yes, I know it's a fuzzy picture. It's one of Dan's.

p.p.s. Big loser of the week has to be Cancellara. I respect his having another plan for summer, but he made it sound like he left the Giro in a huff over the course. In watching the race, it occurred to me -- most riding fans would pay a lot of money for the privilege of riding 61km of closed, unfrackingly gorgeous Cinque Terre roads with perfect pavement and nice smooth, fun little curves. I'd throw down $500 (since it comes with being in Italy), easy. Couldn't he just have said it didn't fit his program?