“Do you want to ride with Levi?” It was Astana’s media relations guy asking me what I assumed was a rhetorical question. At the time Levi Leipheimer was the two time winner of the upcoming Tour of California, a Grand Tour podium finisher, and a decent enough guy. All I had to do was be at Levi’s house before the start of Astana’s training camp, which was being held in his hometown Santa Rosa, and I would be pedaling alongside one of the best ProTour riders. By the time I realized what I was getting myself into, I already had a plane ticket to Santa Rosa.
Riding with a professional cyclist is much like being friends with a trained bear — everything can appear fine on the surface and they can actually be quite friendly, but you just don’t want to provoke them. So I never go in with the attitude that I’m going to impress the rider with my amazing cardiovascular capacity. I’m going to suck wheel instead as often as possible and try to keep the conversation rolling.
Once at Levi’s house with photographer Al Crawford, I got the low-down on what the day’s ride was going to be. According to Odessa, Levi’s wife, Levi had scheduled an easy day in the saddle consisting of just a couple of hours at a low heart rate. I breathed a sigh of relief.
Once kitted up, Leipheimer’s bike dorkness started to surface. We were both riding Trek Madones, but mine was the Project One with a few personal touches that clearly caught his eye. One was a Trek saddle bag that mounted cleanly under the saddle and attached to the seat mast. This bag was met with some visible bike-envy. I told him that I’d seen the bag on Horner’s rig and thought it worked great. The other was the stick-on clear Trek logo frame saver that prevents the housing from rubbing off the frame’s paint. “I don’t have one of those.” Sometimes the coolest things are the smallest. I had him right where I wanted.
Once we started to ride it was apparent that Levi was going to keep his word and keep the ride mellow. Al hopscotched in front of us snapping photos as we rolled through the flat countryside of Santa Rosa. What also became apparent was that Levi was not a big talker, so we rolled along and Levi would not say much of anything. I would break the silence with a ridiculous comment about something equally ridiculous, and I think he was just humoring me by answering. About halfway through our ride a cyclist appeared in front of us wearing a BMC kit. It was Levi’s training partner Scott Nydam. Like Levi, Scott was looking to take it easy and just get prepped for the Tour of California. Suddenly the conversation became a little more animated as Scott has a unique sense of humor which Levi seems to understand. I took the tail-gunner position and stayed out of the way — I know my place in the food chain, and I’m fine with being a bottom feeder.
As we clicked off the miles I could see why Levi calls Santa Rosa home. The country roads were quiet and varied from rolling to hilly, depending which direction you wanted to ride. While the terrain could be humbling, the scenery made it worthwhile. We rode underneath a canopy of trees and alongside vineyards. After a couple of hours Scott pulled off to ride home and we continued back to Levi’s home. True to his word, it had been an easy ride.
The following days were spent at the Astana training camp conducting interviews and not having a chance to ride our bikes while the team pounded out the miles. Since then, the Astana team has racked up the victories both domestically at the Tour of California and Tour of the Gila, and internationally in Europe. The foundation had been laid and the Astana team had a successful Tour de France. Last week Leipheimer just had his Grand Fondo on these same roads with great success. If the rumors are true Santa Rosa will again play a part in next year’s Tour of California.