As the 2009 Amgen Tour of California approaches, two-time defending champion Levi Leipheimer is wrapping up final preparations with his Astana team in his hometown of Santa Rosa, California. With the return of Lance Armstrong, it's inevitable to wonder where the team's allegiance will lie in pursuing overall victory when the race finishes in Escondido February 22: with Leipheimer or Lance, the 7-time Tour de France champion?
The entire Astana squad - minus team director Johan Bruyneel - have called Santa Rosa home this past week, sharing precious saddle time with each other at the Hyatt Vineyard Creek Hotel & Spa before going their separate ways.
Astana mechanics have been dialling in the Trek Madone team bikes with SRAM liaison Alex Wassmann, while directors Alain Gallopin, Dirk Demol, Viatcheslav Ekimov, and Sean Yates sort out the logistics for the season ahead. Leipheimer has lead the team on his favourite local routes throughout the week, and on Wednesday took the Tour of California squad - Armstrong, Chris Horner, Janez Brajkovic, Yaroslav Popvych, Jose Luis Rubiera, Steve Morabito, and Michael Schar - on a brisk 6-hour, 107-mile ride over Sonoma County's King's Ridge and back under somewhat cloudy skies and temperatures in the low 60s.
According to Horner, Astana doesn't feel the pressure to lead the Tour of California start to finish, because as he said, what matters is who wins at the end. He helped Leipheimer win in 2008, and was cagey during a post-ride interview about a designated team leader going into the 2009 event.
"We're going to work hard to win it," he said. "We have guys on the team who can win it, who have won it, and are going to win it!" he laughed.
Leipheimer has proven himself in the California stage race, both in the climbing stages and the time trials, strengths that put him on the podium both at the 2007 Tour de France and the 2008 Tour of Spain. With Armstrong, former Discovery Channel teammate Ivan Basso, 2008 Tour de France champion Carlos Sastre and compatriot Floyd Landis vying for victory in California, Leipheimer knows that pressure comes not only from outside the Astana team, but from the inside as well.
"Well, you know, I've won the race the last two years so there's really no question that I'm a favorite of the race," Leipheimer said during the post-ride press conference. "There are other riders who can win and you never know what can happen in a race ... But I will have every chance and every bit of support of the team to win again."
Leipheimer is enjoying playing host to his 26 teammates, and knows full well that an association with Armstrong will bring media attention to the team, something Leipheimer has experienced as a pro racing with and against Armstrong since 1998, both in the US and abroad, including the Tour de France.
"Lance has gained a lot of media attention (since coming back to racing), and that's all positive," Leipheimer said. "I think he's increased the pie of cycling media, not necessarily taking anything away from anyone or another team."
Leipheimer, 35, considers himself to be the clear favourite in the upcoming Tour of California, but acknowledged Armstrong can "be a factor" in the race.
"I think he's already shown that in the Tour Down Under," Leipheimer added. "He was strong. He was in the mix. Whether he's at his best, I doubt it. I think he's still going to improve, but that's normal. In his head he's thinking that way as well. He's using these races to get back into it."
As a whole, the general atmosphere at the Santa Rosa camp was positive, relaxed and focused. Leipheimer and Armstrong have been spending ample time together, something they started in the fall of 2008 when Armstrong rode with Leipheimer around Napa and Santa Rosa.
Armstrong, 37, originally retired from professional racing after winning the 2005 Tour de France, his seventh in a row. The Tour of California debuted in 2006, with Californian Landis winning the race in front of Team CSC's Bobby Julich and Dave Zabriskie. Armstrong announced his return to the pro peloton in early September, 2008, when Leipheimer and Contador were racing the Tour of Spain, which Contador was leading at the time. Both riders were a bit thrown by Armstrong's return, knowing he'd most likely return to Bruyneel's side for 2009. This complicated things for the two Astana stage-racing stars; Leipheimer and Contador have since made amends with the return of Armstrong and are focusing on the season ahead.
"Now I'm very happy to share a team with Lance," Contador said during Team Astana's press conference. "I think you have to think things over, see how things develop.
"Sometimes in the beginning some things seem negative, but turn into something positive," he added. "I'm certainly very happy that he's on my team and not on another team. And to be able to learn from his great spirit, that can only make me stronger in the future.
"I'm also glad he's on my team and I'm not racing against him!"
Look for a complete interview with Astana riders Chris Horner and Andreas Kloden.