SAINT-QUENTIN, France -- In a sport ruled for so long by
Lance Armstrong, fellow American Levi Leipheimer is hardly a
household name. In the next two weeks of the Tour de France, he
might become a little more familiar.
The consistently high-performing Butte, Mont., native has reason
to fancy his chances of becoming Armstrong's heir: Of the 172
racers still left in cycling's showpiece race that lost top
contenders to doping allegations, a crash and illness, only four
have ever finished above Leipheimer -- and one of those is now his
Leipheimer finished comfortably in the main pack in Wednesday's
fourth stage, won by Australian sprinter Robbie McEwen with a
remarkable final burst of speed. Tom Boonen of Belgium kept the
overall lead, proudly wearing the yellow jersey on his home turf.
Leipheimer, who is 27th overall, is the first to admit that it
is still early in the three-week race and that a surprise
winner could emerge before the finish in Paris on July 23.
Nevertheless, as others have dropped out, his star has risen.
"Someone could pop up and do really well," he said after
Wednesday's stage four, where he accomplished one of his top
priorities for the fast and dangerous first week: staying safe.
Of having been beaten by so few riders in this year's field, he
said: "That's the past, and this is a different year and riders
get stronger and more experience."
"It means a lot, but it's not an absolute truth that you can
place your bets on," he added.
When asked, Leipheimer names three riders who placed above him
in the three Tours he's finished: Spaniard Carlos Sastre of Team
CSC, the Discovery Channel's Portuguese climber Jose Azevedo and
T-Mobile racer Andreas Kloeden, a friend and teammate of Jan
Ullrich, who was among nine riders barred before the start because
of doping allegations.
But Leipheimer is forgetting a fourth: his Gerolsteiner teammate
Georg Totschnig. The Austrian finished seventh at the 2004 Tour,
two spots above Leipheimer, who was then racing for Rabobank.
Leipheimer's spotty memory is perhaps not accidental. At some
point on this Tour, he may have to shelve his own ambitions and
ride in support of Totschnig if the team decides that the Austrian
has the best chance to win. But the reverse could be true, too.
For the moment, the squad says that both are team leaders and
that the decision on who is in the best position to ride for the
Tour crown will be judged on Saturday's long time trial and their
performances during the tough climbs of the Pyrenees and Alps.
"We have two jokers to play with," said the team's press
officer, Mathias Wieland.
The real racing for the overall title won't start until the time
trial and mountains.
Leipheimer finished 56th in Wednesday's 129-mile stage from Huy,
in Belgium, to Saint-Quentin in northeast France.
McEwen dedicated his 10th stage victory in nine Tours -- and his
second this year -- to his American teammate Fred Rodriguez, who
crashed out of the race in Tuesday's accident-strewn stage three
when another favorite, Alejandro Valverde, broke a collarbone and
Rodriguez's accident -- he rode into a pothole -- deprived McEwen
of the rider assigned to lead him into the final stretches of
sprint finishes, the Australian's forte.
But another Davitamon-Lotto teammate, Gert Steegmans, more than
filled that gap Wednesday. McEwen, still one of the most explosive
Tour riders at the age of 34, compared Steegmans to a
"He did it just perfectly," McEwen said. "Even if I had
written a script, it could not have gone any better."
Leipheimer finished eighth, ninth and sixth in the three Tours
he completed in 2002, 2004 and 2005. He is the highest-placed
finisher left from last year. Armstrong retired following his record
seventh straight crown. Runner-up Ivan Basso, third-place Ullrich
and fourth-place Francisco Mancebo were implicated in the same
Spanish doping probe, as were five teammates of the fifth-place
rider last year, Alexandre Vinokourov, forcing him out, too.
"My chances have improved," Leipheimer said. "It's more
responsibility for me and my team but I think it is something that
we are looking forward to."
Other Americans looking good so far are Armstrong's former Tour
support riders, Floyd Landis and George Hincapie. Hincapie has worn
the race leader's yellow jersey for a day so far and now lies third
overall, behind Boonen and world time trial champion Michael Rogers
Landis is ninth and has already won three races this year -- the
Tour of California, the Tour de Georgia and the Paris-Nice.
Five-time Tour winner Eddy Merckx thinks Landis has what it takes.
"He's in very good shape, he has a very good team," he said.
"I think he could win the Tour."