American Levi Leipheimer has been a favorite among American cycling fans since entering the sport seventeen years ago. Over the past decade, Leipheimer has claimed stage race titles such as the Amgen Tour of California, the Tour of Utah, the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, Tour de Suisse, and Tour de San Luis. Throughout his career he showed toughness and the strength of a great cyclist. In October 2012, he was named in USADA’s Reasoned Decision as a witness of Lance Armstrong using performance enhancing drugs. Shortly after testifying in front of USADA against Armstrong, Levi would receive a six month doping ban. The Omega Pharma-Quick Step team would terminate his contract for the upcoming year.
Since then, Levi has remained true to himself, and has been focused on his upcoming Gran Fondo in October. Recently he announced his retirement from professional cycling, telling reporters at the finish of the Tour of California in Santa Rosa.
I recently got the opportunity to talk to Levi about his retirement, USADA, his Gran Fondo, and more. The full conversation can be found below.
Levi, you’ve recently announced your retirement. What brought you to this decision?
It’s obvious that after the USADA Reasoned Decision, and Omega Pharma terminating my contract, I didn’t have that contract that I was expecting this year. I was at the point where I was willing to race another year, but there were only a few teams that I was interested in.
I contacted a few teams, and they were full at that time, because it was pretty late in the year. It would’ve been nice to race another year, but at the same time, I think I was ready to stop in a way.
I had expected to race another year, because I had signed a two-year contract, but I guess it was mostly because of losing my contract. Also because I didn’t want to keep looking around for just any team.
If the opportunity had come up, would you have considered moving down to a UCI Pro-Continental team?
I did have the opportunity, but no. I decided that I’ve put a lot into my career, and into the sport, as a professional for seventeen years, and I’ve made a lot of sacrifices for a few decades — it’s a lot. I don’t think I could do it at a lower level than I was used to. It was kind of all or nothing.
When you announced your retirement, you did so unceremoniously, instead of making a big announcement like some do. Was this intentional on your part, or was it just how it played out at the moment?
It was definitely intentional. I was never going to make a statement that I was retiring. Obviously that would be in poor taste. From past doping, and admitting to past doping, that’s not something I would have pretended to be entitled to.
I had been asked before what I was doing, but I was trying to play it low-key, but at some point I had to tell everybody that I wasn’t going to race again. I tried to do it as unceremoniously as I could. When I went to the Tour of California, when it finished here in Santa Rosa, I was asked. It wasn’t a big announcement, but the media was waiting for some answer, and that’s what they ran with.
So now that you’re retired, what do you keep yourself busy with?
Well, I still ride a lot, because I love to ride my bike, and I want to stay healthy and fit. I even do some local mountain bike races here in northern California. I hang out with my friends, and have fun.
I can tell you; I’m a lot more relaxed now than I was, for example, one week from the start of the Tour de France. It’s a lot different. This will be the first Fourth of July that I’ve spent in the US since 2001. I’m trying to do some normal things, and hang out with friends, and my wife, who I’ve had to spend a lot of time apart from over the last couple years.
Beyond that, I’m working hard on the Gran Fondo. I’m working a little bit with the NorCal High School league; I just went to a development camp with them last week.
Do you plan to continue the Gran Fond0 over the next several years?
Yes. It’s something that I’m very passionate about, and I’m very proud of it. I think that it’s a great thing for our community. I look forward to it every year. It’s something that I really hope, and believe, will succeed for as long I’m alive, I hope. I hope it keeps going forever.
For some who may not know much about it, tell us about the Gran Fondo. When did it start, where is it held, and what’s the route like?
Our first year was 2009. I had the idea earlier that year in March; it was right after the Tour of California that year. I knew the route that I wanted to pick. It was this sort of mythical road that everybody talked about when I first moved out here. I remember the first time I rode it, and I love to take people out there and show them the road. That’s really the inspiration of the Gran Fondo; to show people from out of the area, whether it be Southern California, Wisconsin, or Russia, I love to show them King Ridge road.
We decided that the King Ridge Gran Fondo was the perfect title. It just sort of snowballed into an event than I had ever envisioned.
We were able to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for our local charities. The main beneficiary is the Forget Me Not Farm, which is a therapy farm for at risk children. My wife is actually currently out there right now. She volunteers every Monday, and she has been for the last six or seven years.
Besides the Gran Fondo, do you have any plans to stay active in cycling over the next several years?
I mentioned the NorCal High School league. I think that’s a very positive, and worthwhile, cause, because it just blows me away when I see these kids and ride with these kids who are so fast, and so skilled on a mountain bike at such a young age. I think how awesome would it have been if I had that opportunity to join a high school cycling team when I was growing up.
It’s not just getting more kids on bikes, which is obviously a very worthwhile goal, and one that they’ve achieved, because there are so many kids on bikes, but it gets them outdoors, it gets them healthy. They learn respect for nature. They learn about teamwork, sacrifice and achieving goals.
I think it’s my job, going forward, to convey the message of the things that I went through and try to ensure that kids don’t feel pressured into those situations and those choices. I think if I can tell my story to them, and they can process what has happened in the past, hopefully they can learn from my generation’s mistakes. Hopefully that environment can continue to get better.
Besides your own Gran Fondo, do you participate in any other Gran Fondos?
Nope. No other Gran Fondos. I’ve done some charity rides like the Dempsey Challenge in Maine, but no other Gran Fondos.
You’ve been talking about the high school league that you’re working with, but would you ever like to work with a development team such as a U23 team?
I do enjoy passing on knowledge and experience to younger cyclists. There are a couple of younger pros that live here in Sonoma County, and I really like to go out and train with them. If I can offer advice on training, nutrition, or general career advice, I really enjoy that.
I don’t think I’d ever be a director or a manager of a team. But in the way parents make mistakes along the way and they want to help teach their kids not the make the same mistakes that they did, I think that’s something that I’d love to do for a development squad or under-23 team.
Returning to your retirement: you said, it’s a reflection of the USADA report and being unable to find a team. Looking back, can you summarize your thoughts on the USADA report, all that has happened since, and Omega Pharma terminating your contract?
I think when we were presented, I say we because of the ten of us or so, with this choice of telling the truth to USADA or not, we were all hopeful that it would reveal the big picture and be a big catalyst for change in cycling, as in leadership and really trying to improve cycling’s image. Cycling has changed a lot, but we obviously need to keep working at that. So we were all hopeful that, “Okay, we’re all going to tell the truth together.” It’s not just one person who would be ostracized and kicked out, and called the lone cheater, for example.
We were hopeful that it would be a big catalyst, and big change. I think in the end, it will be, but it’s taken longer than we expected, and has been drawn out. It’s involved a lot of people. I guess we’re watching it unfold. It’s just going to take some time.
It’s been over a year since all of this happened. For you, was it worthwhile to testify?
Absolutely. The choice was to tell, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, or deny it all. I could never imagine trying to deny it, especially if there was going to be this groundswell of people coming forward. There’s no reason to deny it. Telling the truth was the right way, and the only way, for me.
There was a choice, and it’s obviously been difficult and we’ve been criticized a lot, but in the end, it was the right thing to do for ourselves, and for the sport. I don’t regret that at all.
Was there pressure from USADA, or anyone else, to testify, or was it a willing decision for you?
Like I said, I had the choice. I could either tell them the truth, or say no thanks. That was basically it.
How do you feel about the three guys from Garmin getting their contracts back and you being basically forced to retire?
Well, the world isn’t fair. Those guys are lucky because they’re part of a team that’s forward thinking, and was willing to give them the chance. I think they rewarded them for telling the truth. They told those guys: you tell the truth, serve your suspensions, and we’ll take you back, which, like I said, is very forward thinking.
I wish my team had been like that, but they weren’t. It’s nothing against those Garmin guys. They were lucky, and on the right team.
Do you think there may have been ways in which you could have handled the USADA investigation to the point where you could have continued racing?
No. I did everything right, I told the truth, and the rest was out of my hands.
What needs to happen to ensure a clean sport in cycling for future generations?
The anti-doping authorities need to work hard on the science part of it. They need to stay on top of the potential performance enhancers that are out there, and the ones that we hear about such as EPO, and testosterone. They need to continue to work on the testing aspect.
Education goes a long way, which comes from world anti-doping bodies such as USADA, and WADA. Past professionals, like myself, who have gone through that where there wasn’t that much testing, I think we can give those anti-doping authorizes a lot of information, which is actually something I did. After I testified, I went to Atlanta and sat in a room with hundreds of scientists and anti-doping authorities and let them ask me questions for a few hours.
I think it’s just going to take a lot of work from everybody. Even though I doped in my career, I would have rather had a clean sport where the pressure to dope did not exist. I think we all just need to work towards that.
Do you think a period of truth and reconciliation would help the sport move forward?
Yes. I do.
If you could go back in time, what decision would you change in life?
The answer to that is we can’t go back in time. I just have to live with the fact that I made certain decisions at a certain age, under certain circumstances and now that’s something that I have to live the rest of my life with and make the best out of. I need to move forward, and do positive things and turn those things into a positive, which is what I was saying about going to USADA and talking to their anti-doping scientists and authorities, telling my story to the high school kids.
I didn’t go there and preach to them about what not to do, I don’t think I’m in the position to do that, obviously, but to be available for them to ask me any question, like no question is off the table, I think goes a long way. Kids shouldn’t be sheltered, they’re able to make their own decisions, so I think all of that answers the question. You can’t go back in time.
If you hadn’t chose to dope, do you think you would have succeeded in professional cycling to the point that you did with performance enhancing drugs?
In the years that I did, no, I don’t think so. It was too prevalent in the sport, but I had the best results of my career afterwards when I was competing clean. I think that says a lot about how the sport changed in just a couple of years.
In your opinion, how can young fans, who have recently entered the sport, believe in cycling after all that has happened with USADA and Lance?
I wouldn’t blame anyone for being skeptical. The only thing that I can say, which has been said a lot in the media by others riders, is that it’s a good thing that the truth is coming out. If you listen to everybody’s story, everybody talks about the biological passport and how things have changed since around 2006 to 2008, and how ninety-five percent of riders using performance-enhancing drugs to flip flop that ninety-five percent were clean. Today you see just a few people who are breaking the rules.
Hopefully there can be a change in the leadership of the sport, and that will help to bring back the credibility of cycling.
If the next generations don’t face the problems of performance enhancing drugs, what challenges will they face that perhaps you did not?
I think one is the economic health of the sport. A lot of the sponsors need to come back in. Industry sponsors such as Specialized and Trek are supporting the teams now, but we’re missing some of the big name sponsors.
I’d say that the number one issue that they face is that their races are becoming more and more dangerous. Safety is a big issue, and that’s why you see such a big debate over radios. Riders and the teams really think that the radios are safer, and if they’re using that as an argument, there shouldn’t be a discussion. I think that anything that the riders say towards safety, they’re not making this up.
The riders are the ones out there risking their lives. I think we see more serious injuries more and more. That’s an issue that they face now, and I hope one that gets more attention.
I understand that you’re somewhat of a private or shy person. How do you deal with that while living in the spotlight of professional cycling?
It’s tough. I’m kind of reserved. I always get a little bit uneasy when someone comes to me, and they really know me, but I don’t know them. After a few minutes of talking, it’s totally different; I find out that they love to ride too, but I never get used to that.
I’m not a Hollywood celebrity. I just think of myself as a real person. When I go out in public, I don’t have this consciousness that people know me, but people sometimes come up to me, or recognize my name. I’ve never gotten used to that.
After traveling around the world, how many languages do you currently speak, or at least know parts of?
Well, I can butcher French. A little bit of Dutch, a couple words of German, and a few words of Spanish. After living in Spain for a decade, I can’t put together a sentence, but I know some words. I never really had the energy, but I did take French in high school, and the few years I went to college.
Off the bike, what are some hobbies that you enjoy?
Well, I love hanging out with our animals at home. We currently have twenty-three pets. I like to go to the movies, go to a good restaurant. The Riviera here in town is famous for its Italian food, and a good friend of mine. Normal things. I’m just a normal guy.
If you hadn’t become a cyclist, what do you think you would be doing?
I always got that question my whole career, and I could never come up with a good answer, because that was the only thing I wanted to do. I never thought of anything else. Now that I have the chance or ability to do something else, I still want to ride my bike.
You just mentioned that you have twenty-three pets. What pets do you currently have?
We have dogs, cats, a horse, donkeys, goats, a pig, and rabbits.
How did you become an animal lover?
I grew up with a couple of German shepherds, a couple cats, and then when I met Odessa, she was an animal lover and we got a cat together, and then another cat, and at some point we had like five or six cats, and then we got our first dog – now we have seven dogs.
It just kept growing from there and Odessa has volunteered and been on the board of multiple animal rescues and charities. Like I said, now she works out at the Forget Me Not Farm. It’s kind of snowballed. It’s definitely a big passion of hers, and it’s made me into more of an animal lover than I was when I was a kid.
If I’m told correctly, Odessa is a vegetarian?
Yes, she is.
Now that you’re not a professional cyclist, do you think you’ll ever become a vegetarian?
I eat cage-free, and humanely raised animals, so maybe I could try that next step, I don’t know. I have to admit, I enjoy my diet.
Is there any message that you’d like to send to your fans, supporters, etc.?
Yeah, definitely. I’ve had a lot of support. Especially since the USADA Reasoned Decision. I’ve had a lot of support, not only friends and family, and people that I know, but also from people that I don’t know. If someone just says something small that’s supportive, it’ll make my day. I really appreciate that. I just want them to know that I gave it everything that I had in my career, and that given the circumstances, and what I knew at the time, I did my best. I gave one hundred percent. I hope they appreciate that for what it’s worth, despite my mistakes.
Hypothetically speaking, in a fierce battle between pirates and ninjas, whom would you choose to win the battle?
I’m going to go with the ninjas. They seem to be better organized, highly trained, and I don’t know anything about them, but it seems like they have some kind of code of honor.