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Leipheimer opens up about doping revelations

Levi Leipheimer
Levi Leipheimer

Levi Leipheimer talked about his use of performance enhancing drugs on Tuesday.

JOHN BURGESS / The Press Democrat
Published: Tuesday, October 16, 2012 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, October 16, 2012 at 11:39 p.m.

Santa Rosa cycling icon Levi Leipheimer on Tuesday recounted his steep slide into the hidden world of doping, the emotional pain wrought by his choices, and how his relationship with Lance Armstrong deteriorated to the point where he is fearful of retribution from the man.

It was Leipheimer's first media interview since the disclosures a week ago by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency that Leipheimer and several other elite U.S. riders had admitted participating in complex doping strategies that in most cases were an indictment of Armstrong, the seven-time winner of the Tour de France.

The detailed report has sent ripples throughout the worldwide cycling community.

The repercussions were evident Tuesday: Leipheimer, already suspended from competition for six months, learned his 2012 team, Omega Pharma-Quickstep, terminated his contract. Just as Leipheimer — the face of the booming cycling culture in Sonoma County — was asked about his professional future, he glanced at his buzzing cellphone, looked up and with a sigh said, “I think you'll find out when we leave the table here.”

Leipheimer, who turns 39 next week, shrugged. He was expecting the call. He said he hopes he will find a team in 2013 and that he's not through with the sport.

“I don't want to stop like this,” Leipheimer said.

However he spends next year, Leipheimer said he won't be home feeling sorry for himself. The face of the Tour of California cycling race and the GranFondo charity ride that bears his name has work to do. Much of it involves trying to clean up a sport by revealing how dirty it was, he said.

Leipheimer, who last week sent an email to supporters in the North Coast cycling community apologizing for doping, said that he is aware of negative public sentiment since he came forward, but that the positive feedback he has received from friends has buoyed his spirits.

“I've had a lot of emails and a lot of texts from friends,” he said. “Their support means the world to me right now.

“I wouldn't have been able to make it through all this without their support.”

Of his critics, Leipheimer said, “I think if people could talk to me personally about it, they wouldn't have that reaction.”

Leipheimer described the pressure he felt during his years of doping.

“We were like frogs in boiling water,” he said of those who doped and faced the daily pressures of the peloton, team management, team doctors and, especially, the requirement to dope to remain employed. It is that last phrase, Leipheimer said, that ate at him like a cancer.

“You go from a 13-year old boy who falls in love with cycling,” he said, “and you have this vision what the sport and ... ”

Leipheimer paused, and then said: “Along the way, little by little, honestly, you get your heart broken piece by piece. You come to realize what it was really like ... it seemed far-fetched, surreal.”

He cited a day in June 2006, in Girona, Spain.

“I was taking out blood in preparation for the Tour de France,” he said. “We would take EPO to replace the blood so we could still train.”

Leipheimer said that by 2006, his seventh year on performance-enhancing drugs, the cheating was barely noticed. “It was so casually discussed in the peloton,” he said, “no one felt like they were cheating. They didn't feel like they were cheating each other.”

So Leipheimer said that on that day he wasn't sure if he had taken EPO the day before, or the dosage or the time, so routine it was. He thought he was OK the morning the testers came.

“But later I second-guessed myself and I was having a panic attack,” he said. It lasted for a couple of weeks.

That episode, Leipheimer said, led him to quit doping by 2007. Another factor, he said, was the development of an enhanced drug test known as the biological passport. He had come to a conclusion that now he wishes he would have made in 1999, when he first started doping.

“Do I make this decision to dope and continue to see how far I can go?” he recalled asking himself in 1999. “Or do I regret it for the rest of my life because I didn't find out how good I was. It was damned if you do, damned if you don't.”

Leipheimer said that by 2007 he saw it differently. Doping carried more risk than reward, created more problems than it solved. It was an “intense internal struggle” that he said was tugging at him.

“It was the biggest sense of relief when I decided to stop,” he said. “The Tour of California, the bronze medal in the Olympic Games, second place in the (Spanish) Vuelta because those are the results I am proud of because they came with a huge sense of relief.”

Because they came clean?

“They came clean, yes,” Leipheimer said.

But then came another date Leipheimer won't forget, October 2010. The feds subpoenaed him to testify before a grand jury in a separate investigation than the one conducted by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, a non-governmental organization that regulates cycling. The cyclist pleaded the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination. The feds granted him immunity from prosecution. Refusal to answer the questions carried the risk of jail time.

Leipheimer answered the questions, as did 10 other riders and 15 additional witnesses. Two months after his testimony, Leipheimer ran into Armstrong.

“He wouldn't even talk to me,” Leipheimer said. “He wouldn't even look at me. I tried to talk to him and he would just ignore me. And that's when he sent his first text to Odessa (Gunn, Leipheimer's wife),” a message Leipheimer interpreted as a threat.

The message read simply, “Run, don't walk.”

Armstrong has been known to be aggressive when he feels attacked. Does Leipheimer fear retribution from Armstrong?

“Yes,” he said. He cited cyclist Tyler Hamilton's tell-all book about his run-in with Armstrong and accounts from others who were once close to Armstrong. “When you put it all together you can't help to be worried about that. He knows a lot of people and has a lot of connections.”

Leipheimer said he thought retribution wouldn't be physical but more subtle, like making Leipheimer a pariah in the sport.

Leipheimer sought to downplay his relationship with Armstrong.

“It's been a little overstated that we were friends,” he said. “We were just colleagues basically.”

Leipheimer said he felt the USADA's conclusions about Armstrong's prominent role in doping are unassailable.

Today, Leipheimer is forthright about his involvement with drugs. “I owe it to everyone to be available to discuss it openly to anyone on the street, on a bike, in the bike ships, in the schools, in a cafe, restaurant,” he said Sunday at a symposium in Atlanta.

Present were some of the top scientists in the doping field. They wanted to hear more theories of doping. They wanted to hear it from someone who was right in the middle of it at the highest level.

To that end, Leipheimer said he is dedicating his time to spreading the word. It's as if one door has closed and another has opened for him.

“It's obvious you can't ignore what came out Wednesday,” he said. “You just can't bury your head in the sand.”

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.

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