There’s only one race that everyone wants to be in and it allows room for only 21 teams and 189 of the best riders from around the globe. This grueling 21-day, 2,028-mile race is the Tour de France and it’s the toughest bicycling race in the world and one of the world’s premiere sports spectacles. Who would have thought that a man from a small town in Montana would participate in this epic event?
Leipheimer, a 29-year-old Butte native, was the first cyclist from this state to ride in the Tour de France, and only the third American ever to lead a team in the Tour de France.
Leipheimer knew from an early age that he would someday race in the Tour de France. “I remember watching it on TV when I was 13, from my home in Butte, Montana, and thinking, ‘wow!’ and knew that someday I’d be there,” Leipheimer recalled.
Rob Leipheimer, Levi’s older brother by seven years, had Levi riding a road-racing bicycle by the time Levi was 10 years old. At the end of their first summer of serious training, Levi was posting faster times than Rob on a 600-foot ascent up Main Street in Butte, which the brothers dubbed “the toughest mile in Montana.”
The Outdoorsman in Butte, a ski shop that Rob manages, is one of several Leipheimer family enterprises started since their great-grandfather Edwin arrived in the 1930s. During the Tour de France, the marquee outside invited cycling fans to join Rob every afternoon for cable television coverage of the race. Inside, an array of cycling paraphernalia traces Levi’s rise from rider in Butte, Montana to a professional racer traveling to competitions throughout the world.
As a teenager, Leipheimer was set on alpine skiing and only raced bicycles to keep his legs strong during the summer. Even then Leipheimer was very disciplined and serious about sports. He was systematic about his improvement, both on the slopes and on the road. Levi’s wife Odessa affirmed, “When he has a goal, Levi is the most single minded person in the world… In the four and a half years that we have been together he has not once scrapped a training ride because of the weather or because he did not feel like riding.”
Fellow professional bike racer Jason van Marle of Corvallis, Montana first met Leipheimer at a race outside of Helena. Leipheimer was 14 and van Marle was 16. That summer the two teens saw each other at every race. They became good friends and started traveling together to the competitions. The two young men were consumed by bike racing, oblivious to everything else, and desperate to measure themselves against the best in the world.
Just after graduation Leipheimer departed for Belgium, where he met up with van Marle yet again. In Europe, Leipheimer was able to race almost every day at a level of competition similar to, or better than, the top level of racing in the United States. After several seasons in Belgium, van Marle and Leipheimer got a place together. They competed in amateur events up to four times a week and basically limited their lives training, sleeping and eating. This tireless dedication eventually led them to professional bicycling careers.
In 1999, two years after reaching professional status, Leipheimer won two stages at the Fitchburg Classic and three stages at the International Cycling Classic. He also placed two top-three stage finishes in the Trans-Canada stage race, fifth overall at Malaysia's Tour of Langkawi and 17th at the Peace Race. That year Leipheimer also won the U.S. National time trial championship and a silver medal in the time trial at the Pan Am Games.
The 2000 season, Leipheimer's first with the U.S. Postal Service team, was also his first racing a full European schedule in addition to the domestic racing calendar. He started the season placing 4th overall at the Redlands Classic. In June, he had a second-place stage finish in the Tour of Luxembourg. The end of the season brought a stage win and an 8th place overall finish in the Circuit Franco-Belge. Leipheimer, a seasoned member with the U.S. Postal Team, went on to other victories and top scores, including the Tour of Spain in 2001.
Finally in 2002, Leipheimer made it to the Tour de France as leader of the Dutch team Rabobank. Leipheimer’s family, supporters from home, and crowds of Americans waving the American flag were there to cheer him with unwavering loyalty from amid the masses bicycling enthusiasts. With the support of his team and his fans, Leipheimer finished eighth, achieving his personal goal of making it into the top ten overall. He was just 17 minutes and 11 seconds behind the winner and fellow American, Lance Armstrong.
When it was all over, Leipheimer recalled with a tinge of awe that the Tour de France “was a very special experience. The crowds were bigger and the mountains in person were breathtaking, literally and metaphorically.” And when asked how he got this far, Leipheimer modestly replied, “I’ve just been doing what I love, and that’s how I made it to this point. I guess it worked out maybe better than I thought.”
Leipheimer continues to do what he loves and persists in his climb to the top in the racing world, amazing onlookers at the Tour de France in 2007 by taking third place overall. He won the crucial final individual time trial stage in the competition, and the next day he became just the fifth American to make the final podium, or the top three riders overall, in Paris.