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Levi’s not blue: Utah’s Leipheimer relaxing after big cycling season

SHARE Levi’s not blue: Utah’s Leipheimer relaxing after big cycling season

DEER VALLEY — As Levi Leipheimer enjoyed his blue cheese crusted tenderloin of beef and chocolate mousse cake at the Chateaux's bistro high on the mountain at Deer Valley, he commented on how nice it is to not have to worry quite as much about what he puts into his body.

"It's the offseason," he explained. "That means I can eat this and not feel guilty."

That's quite the contrast to his diet and attitude for most of the year. As one of the world's best cyclists, Leipheimer is acutely aware of virtually everything he eats, everything he does and every bit of exercise he undertakes.

He's also gleefully allowing himself some digestive indiscretions while he celebrates his best year as a professional cyclist.

The Discovery Channel cyclist (at least until the team disbands and his contract expires at the end of the year) won the Tour of California, placed on the podium at the Tour de France and won the U.S.

Professional Cycling road race a month ago. He captured time-trial victories in stage races across the globe and set the cycling world on fire with what has been described by many as the best Tour de France time trial in history.

Now, he's pondering the future of the sport and where it will take him.

"I'm not really a free agent," Leipheimer said when asked what life is like not having a team. "We just can't say anything yet, but I'm not really on the market anymore."

Leipheimer said he and his new cycling team were not quite prepared to make an announcement, but the Deseret Morning News has learned the Rowland Hall graduate will join Astana, along with former Discovery Channel director Johan Bruyneel and a few other Discovery cyclists such as Tour de France winner Alberto Contador for the next cycling season.

"They just need to make sure everything is just right before they make it official," said Dr. Massimo (Max) Testa, who has worked with Leipheimer as a coach and doctor for several years.

A move to Astana would surprise many. The team was in the middle of a handful of doping scandals this year with team leader Alexander Vinokourov being kicked out of the Tour de France after a positive result in a blood-doping test.

Leipheimer, a Montana native who began his competitive cycling career during his stay in Utah when he embraced the sport as a way to stay in shape as a skier for the prestigious RowMark Ski Academy, is back in the Beehive State to help Testa with a cycling camp. The camp, which is in its first year and attracted more than a dozen cyclists from Utah, Oregon, California and other states, is designed to help athletes — young, old, experienced and just beginning — identify their strengths, weaknesses and abilities as they seek to either becoming a highly competitive racer or simply a more healthy person.

Testa, the former team doctor to Lance Armstrong, has joined forces with his medical partner Eric Heiden — a five-time speedskating gold medalist and Tour de France cyclist — at The Orthopedic Specialty Hospital. They hope to establish Utah as a premier destination for top-level cyclists.

"I thought I was at the top of my abilities," Leipheimer said. "Then I started working with Max and he's taken me to another level."

Leipheimer, 33 years old and entering the peak of his career after a relatively late start as a professional, is the guest of honor at this first camp and said he has high hopes for the sport despite the recurring scandals surrounding athletes caught doping in order to reach higher levels of performance.

The Floyd Landis saga, particularly, has been a challenge to deal with. Questions about doping haunt cyclists everywhere they go, and Leipheimer has heard just about all of them.

"Yep, that's pretty much all we talk about," he said, only half sarcastically over dinner. "I hope now that Floyd's deal is kind of over, that we can move on. Everyone acts like we're the dirtiest athletes in the world, when I think the reality is we are the cleanest. We get tested all the time. They show up at your door unannounced and test you. We're tested before races and after races. We're tested all the time.

"When someone gets caught it gets all the attention," Leipheimer said. "But do you really think we're dirtier than football players who hardly even get tested?"

Still, the scandals have hurt the sport more than the headlines tell.

Sponsors have decided to not renew their contracts with teams — Discovery Channel, the most successful team in the world for the past decade, failed to secure a title sponsor and simply pulled the plug on operations leaving dozens of cyclists, coaches and support staff looking for work — and some races such as the Tour of Utah and Tour of Georgia were unable to secure enough corporate sponsorship with Utah being canceled and Georgia needing a late infusion of state money.

Still, cycling is growing in many ways, Leipheimer said, with more people taking up the sport on a competitive level than ever before.

Leipheimer is set to be part of a 100-mile ride today over Wolf Creek Pass with the campers Testa is working with.

He'll then return to his California home with his wife, former pro cyclist Odessa Gunn, and prepare for the 2008 cycling season. He'll eventually return to his European base of operation in Spain as he tries to move another step or two up the podium.

Until then, he's not going to shy away from his month or two of dietary indulgence.

E-mail: jeborn@desnews.com