Discovery's Leipheimer still in the Tour game

TIGNES, France -- It was clear from the time the Tour de France route was announced last October that the most difficult part was backloaded onto the last third of the race. Both long individual time trials and two brutal uphill finishes in the Pyrenees take place in the nine-day stretch beginning July 21.

We just didn't know how backloaded the race was until Sunday. The climb to Tignes, the only stage in the Alps that looked as if it could create some time gaps and sort the Wheaties from the chaff, didn't tell us much at all.

Instead of testing each other, the overall contenders played a shell game on the way up to this ski resort town, mostly keeping their fitness levels and their intentions under wraps. The race unfolded in such a way that there was no point in going all out.

Once breakaway specialist Michael Rasmussen of Denmark went up the road and staked out the stage win, everyone else relaxed, or at least kicked back as much as one can when one is pedaling up more than 10 miles of gracefully curving switchbacks. Rasmussen actually might think he can win the race, but few others do.

He is a one-trick rider -- a climber who has trouble staying upright in time trials -- and now that he has revealed his ambitions go beyond zipping up that ghastly polka-dot jersey that belongs to the Tour's King of the Mountains, it's unlikely the guys chasing the title will let him get away so easily again.

Discovery Channel team leader Levi Leipheimer's instructions were to stay with the other men considered to be overall contenders. He did that until one of the last mini-attacks, and finished just about four minutes south of Rasmussen. In the all-important overall standings, he's within a minute of the guys who count.

"I was just following and trying to stay steady," Leipheimer said afterward. "It's a long race. I was OK today, but I wasn't super. I think I'll be better in the Pyrenees. Today I had to limit my losses on guys like [Christophe] Moreau and [Iban] Mayo, the guys who are riding better than me right now."

If those don't exactly sound like fighting words, you haven't grasped much about how different this Tour promises to be from those of recent years, and you don't know too much about Leipheimer's Tour history.

The Tour settled into a certain pattern during the Lance Armstrong era. Armstrong invariably made his move in the first tough mountain stage, then he and his team defended the yellow jersey the rest of the way, with varying degrees of difficulty. Floyd Landis did the same thing last year, although he gave the lead up before he re-took it in his now-disputed win.

With all due respect to Rasmussen, that won't happen this time. The Tour champion might not emerge until a week from now. Monday is a rest day, and Tuesday's final Alps stage has a downhill finish. The race noodles around for a few days after that until the first long time trial in Albi, which is oddly placed before one of the toughest uphill finishes in Tour lore -- the long and grinding road up to Plateau de Beille in the Pyrenees.

It's much easier to open up big time gaps in the mountains than in time trials, so the favorites are less likely to take big risks in Albi, knowing what is looming the next day.

How does that set up for the 33-year-old Leipheimer, who is arguably one of the best American riders never to get on the Tour podium? His appearances here have been largely feast or famine, with three top 10 finishes, one abandon due to an early crash, and a distant 13th place last year, when he recovered from a disastrous time trial to take second in a difficult Pyrenees stage.

One bad day -- the first tough day of the Tour -- has derailed Leipheimer's podium hopes on at least two occasions. Last year, a stomach ailment sank him in the first time trial, where he lost a shocking six minutes. In 2004, he bonked -- the cyclist's term for running out of gas -- and fell out of shouting distance from the podium on Plateau de Beille, the very climb that could tip the balance this year.

Yet he has a well-deserved reputation as a tenacious rider who hangs in and chips away and winds up with more than respectable results. Leipheimer also endured a period of uncertainty about his role with the team during the brief tenure of fallen star Ivan Basso, who was signed as a Discovery leader last fall but left after admitting his involvement in a blood doping scandal last spring.

The biggest difference between Levi past and Levi present is the team he has around him, which still retains plenty of muscle memory on the subject of escorting a winner over mountain passes and protecting him once he's in the lead.

Leipheimer has seen that strength from the inside and the outside. He made somewhat of a prodigal return this season when he returned to the team where he earned his stripes. His surprise third place in the 2001 Tour of Spain enabled him to jump from the team then known as U.S. Postal Service -- where there was an obvious bottleneck at the leader's position -- to two successive European teams, Netherlands-based Rabobank and the German Gerolsteiner team.

During those travels, the laconic Montana native traded the efficient machinery of Postal/Discovery for the chance to know what it felt like to lead a team.

"Rabobank was a steep learning curve," he told ESPN.com this spring. "The last two years at Gerolsteiner were great. That's where I really started to mature and get results.

"I wouldn't change anything. I wouldn't be in this position now if I had stayed with Postal. It's a completely different experience, partly because the team is different but mostly because I'm different. I've been around the block now, I guess. I equate it to growing up, and you haven't found yourself and you don't know yourself and you go out in the world and you learn and become comfortable with who you are."

Leipheimer isn't critical of his former teams, but said the ride was entirely different when he got the benefit of Discovery's support for the first time in his winning bid at the Tour of California in February.

"Toward the end there, and I've been on the other side of that too, the rest of the peloton, they're sick and tired of us leading the race," he said. "They really start to throw caution to the wind and collaborate a little bit with other teams. It got to the point where they just wanted to break us. Some guys weren't caring so much about winning for themselves, they just wanted us to lose. And for the team to withstand that was pretty amazing."

California is not France, of course. Leipheimer was eclipsed on Sunday's stage by his own teammate, Alberto Contador of Spain, who looked like the strongest man on the team, but also would be a logical stalking horse for team director Johan Bruyneel.

Bruyneel appeared notably unstressed in Tignes. Contador rode well, Bruyneel said affably, and he wasn't worried about Leipheimer, who did essentially what he was supposed to and what has eluded him in past early Tour tests. That is, stay in the game.

"He's fine," Bruyneel said. "He's going to get better throughout the Tour. He's a smart rider, a very economical rider. He's not a rider of extremes. He's very regular."

And that is the key. This is a Tour without celebrities, conducted in a year when remarkable performances will raise more doubt than admiration. It might be a race for a regular guy, someone who is better at damage control than doing damage. If that's the case, Levi Leipheimer has the best shot of his career to be on the podium in Paris.

Bonnie DeSimone is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.