In an odd way races seem to have their symbolic riders, don't they? Ronde van Vlaanderen... Briek Schotte. Paris-Roubaix... Jean Stablinski. Not sure who you could pick for any of the grand tours (TdF... Hinault?), but it's pretty easy to figure out who the face of the Amgen Tour of California is. He's the most decorated winner. Local guy. Headliner at press conferences, even when he might not be riding. Hell, this year, they even included a chunk of Levi's Gran Fondo in stage 1. In these still somewhat formative years of the ATOC, there is no separating out Levi Leipheimer from the festivities.
Unfortunately, Leipheimer's return engagement isn't shaping up as planned. The hometown start was to be a triumphant moment, but an accident with a car left him healing a broken ankle. Friday Leipheimer said he planned to take the start, apparently on the theory that missing out on your hometown race entirely is worse than getting dropped in it. [OK, that's an exaggeration, Levi is a gifted enough climber to hang on in a relatively mellow stage on a mere two weeks of training. But anything more would be superhuman.] Leipheimer rolled into town with a new kit -- the classics giant Omega Pharma Quick Step -- and as famous a teammate as you can have in Tom Boonen. After losing the title two years running it was all teed up for Levi to grab it back when a car plowed into him from behind six weeks ago.
All of this has had me thinking about Levi a lot lately. As an American fan I've long had trouble connecting to the guy, because he seems more interested in winning the Tour of California than the fact that he was on the Tour de France podium once, while I am way more interested in who finishes on the podium of the Tour than who wins the ATOC. Leipheimer's attitude suggests a lack of ambition, if you just react and don't think too much. But on further reflection and knowing only what he says to the press (as opposed to who he is), I think I'm beginning to see something.
- He sincerely identifies with the race (and vice versa). Geography has pushed Leipheimer and the ATOC together. There's a rather sweet quote from Levi at CN now, where he remembers "dreaming about the roads we'd be racing on and the peloton that would assemble" back in 2005, shortly before the inaugural event in February of '06. This isn't too far removed from Dave Stoller dreaming of the Cinzanos, and it's something more purely hopeful than the more typical Flemish kid dreaming of winning de Ronde. That has a well-worn pathway; Levi's path to the ATOC wasn't particularly scripted or pre-ordained.
- On a practical level, Leipheimer is playing his cards smartly. I know enough about my personal brand of cycling fanhood to understand that I don't speak for the masses. Marketers don't go looking for the hard-core fans who would rather talk about the 2007 Tour than all three of Levi's ATOC wins put together. By identifying with his hometown race, Leipheimer is leveraging his most valuable asset -- the ability to get his American hands on the biggest prize in American cycling. Not that he doesn't try to win the Tour de France too, but he seems determined not to let the opportunity pass to be the face of American stage racing. Being a big fish in our small pond is probably going to set him up for his post-racing days better than whatever he could leverage out of his respectable Tour finishes. In the Tour, it's not true that nobody remembers who finishes second, especially in years when the battle for the maillot jaune is fought tooth-and-nail. But it's kinda true that we don't remember who finishes third... especially American fans who remember Lance or even LeMond. I love what Levi did that month in '07 and I wish he won. But it was five years ago. It's not his legacy.
- As for his ambition, I can't look into his soul and tell you what he really wants. But it wouldn't surprise me if that ambition peaks in California, not France. It takes an unnatural level of confidence to see yourself as a true challenger for victory in the Tour, and I can't tell if Leipheimer has it. No surprise; he's ridden the thing for several different teams, and rarely have those teams given Levi the kind of support you'd lend to someone you really believe can win. That plus his results say he's a dark horse in France, and I suspect he knows this well. In Cali, he appears to be a different guy: hungry, confident. His wins have been authoritative enough, like he knows this is his moment.
Bottom line, his attachment to this race works for him. If the American scene could hurry up and get bigger while the guy has a high-flying year or two left in his legs, Leipheimer might be able to reel off enough top performances to wrap up his career in style. Then, when we go to arrange his place in the country's cycling history, the picture of a world-class athlete winning the races he loves most will be clear.
Photo by Ezra Shaw, Getty Images Sport