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Leipheimer finds new home, signs on with Astana

Tour de France third-place finisher Levi Leipheimer has decided to migrate to the Astana team for next season, where several of his former Discovery Channel teammates and director Johan Bruyneel have already landed.

Leipheimer, who turns 34 on Wednesday, told ESPN.com he signed a two-year contract with the team, which is based in Switzerland but bankrolled by business interests in Kazakhstan. The Montana native had the best season of his career in 2007, winning the Tour of California and reaching the Tour de France podium before capturing the U.S. national road championship for the first time.

"A lot of that has to do with Johan and the staff and how comfortable I am with them," Leipheimer said. "It works for me, so why should I change it?

"It's not the exact same riders, but there will be the same philosophy and understanding there."

Discovery opted to fold after this season when its primary sponsor pulled out and finding a replacement proved elusive despite young Spanish rider Alberto Contador's victory in a topsy-turvy Tour de France.

Bruyneel, who also guided Lance Armstrong to all seven of his Tour victories, initially said he would retire, but was tempted back by an offer to become Astana's general manager -- a more administrative role than the hands-on position he held with Discovery.

Contador also signed with Astana and several assistant directors, including longtime pros Sean Yates and Viatcheslav Ekimov, are following Bruyneel.

Leipheimer said he's at ease with the fact that he'll be regarded as a co-leader with Contador. He expects the team to work for the rider who is in better form in a given race, he said.

"I've had a steady progression, and I got to the point this year where I feel like I can win the Tour," Leipheimer said. "We'll go in next year like we did this year. We'll have a defending champion and another guy who can win it. You have to keep your options open, but it's better to have two guys who can win the Tour than just one."

Astana's new regime is sure to face some skepticism from cycling officials, the media and the public after the team's problem-plagued 2007 campaign. Under old management, the team was criticized for possibly trying to evade drug testing, a charge ex-director Marc Biver denied.

Then two of its top riders, pre-Tour favorite Alexandre Vinokourov and Andrey Kashechkin, failed doping tests for illicit transfusions -- Vinokourov at the Tour and Kashechkin during a random test while training a week later. Both are disputing the test results.

Leipheimer said he had no hesitation about signing with Astana despite the questions that may follow the team next year and the political and doping controversies that continue to impede the sport.

"I'm certainly not going to give up because of what's happened," he said. "The sport is changing for the better, going in the right direction, and I'm excited to see that."

Leipheimer, a former downhill skier, began his bike racing career as an amateur in Belgium and rode with the U.S. Postal Service team -- Discovery's precursor -- as a developing pro. His first big breakthrough came at the 2001 Tour of Spain, where he bumped teammate Roberto Heras off the podium in the final time trial to place third.

The leadership bottleneck created by Armstrong's presence prompted Leipheimer to leave Postal and ride as the leader for two European teams -- Netherlands-based Rabobank and the German Gerolsteiner team. He logged three top-10 finishes in the Tour from 2002-06 before he opted to return to Bruyneel's squad for the 2007 season.

Leipheimer is married to former Canadian racer Odessa Gunn. The two met while training for the U.S. Championships in Philadelphia and share a common passion for animal rescue causes. They split their time between homes in Girona, Spain and Santa Rosa, Calif.

Bonnie D. Ford is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.