Although they've been part of the same team in the past, 2009 should see Levi Leipheimer and Lance Armstrong actually line up in the same races together. The 34-year-old Montana rider recently spoke to Cyclingnews' Shane Stokes, giving his reasons why he welcomes the Texan's return.
What with Lance Armstrong announcing his comeback and Alberto Contador reportedly saying that he won the Vuelta without committed support from his teammate, you might expect Levi Leipheimer to be seeking a new team for 2009. But the American welcomes news of the former and dismisses reports about the latter, stating that Contador was misquoted and that he will be staying put next season.
"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. "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."
The news of Armstrong's return first emerged in September, when Leipheimer and Contador were focused on riding – and winning – the Tour of Spain. It was a surprise to both; the Texan has been out of the sport over three years and never previously gave an indication that he might return. And while his move to the Astana team would clearly threaten the leadership aspirations of both in races such as the Tour, they had to remain focussed on the task at hand and then work out their respective positions afterwards.
"Obviously we heard about it a few weeks ago," Leipheimer said, describing his reaction. "We were in the middle of the Vuelta and I won't lie to you, it was a big shock. We were all really stunned because we had heard the rumours and thought they were just crazy…it was such a far-out story.
"But when he [Armstrong] came out and confirmed it, we were all kind of stunned. We were in the middle of the race and so we told ourselves that we would focus on the Vuelta and try not to let it become too big of a topic."
Given the uncertainty about how well Armstrong can recapture his past form, it's unsurprising that Johan Bruyneel has publicly indicated that the seven-time Tour champion will need to prove he can win again before being given full leadership status. While nothing is certain, it would be unlikely that Armstrong would enter the Tour de France if he didn't believe he could win. He took considerable pride in retiring on top of the sport, and it's impossible to see him setting for being a domestique deluxe.
It's also difficult to believe Bruyneel's assurances to Contador that both will be given equal status; the Belgian and the American have a long, successful association, and it would be naïve of the Spanish rider to think that would be forgotten. Besides, Armstrong was always seen as the real leader of US Postal and Discovery; he's more likely to be calling the shots rather than taking team orders.
Whatever happens, Leipheimer can see a big positive to Armstrong's return. "Now I have had time to think about it, I think it is really good," he stated. "If you look at all the attention that he is getting in the last couple of weeks, especially in the US mainstream media, cycling is all over the sports pages again. He has been to New York and to Las Vegas and gets a lot of attention wherever he goes. That is good for the sport and good for our team.
"We actually didn't get to race together when we were on Postal. I know we were technically teammates but until I made my breakthrough performance in the Vuelta, we didn't do any races together. And then I switched teams. We hung out more after the fact, when I was on other teams."
Click here for the complete interview at Cyclingnews.com.