Levi Leipheimer is one of the strongest favourites for the Giro d?Italia. In the new edition of Cycle Sport, out now, he talks exclusively about his chances in the Grand Tours, and why he is the dark horse of the Astana team.

When Lance Armstrong announced his comeback, and confirmed that he?d be riding for his old boss Johan Bruyneel at Astana, it looked like Levi Leipheimer had been stitched up.

As it was, he was already seen as the worthy plugger, the guy who came second, or third, behind his more exciting, attacking team-mate Alberto Contador. Now he was the worthy plugger who would play third fiddle behind Armstrong and Contador.

Leipheimer has come third in the Tour de France by 31 seconds, and second in the Vuelta by 46 seconds (both times when Contador had won the race), but it was looking like he?d be best remembered this season as the strongest bottle-fetcher in the peloton.

But of Astana?s trio of Grand Tour favourites, he?s actually enjoyed the best of the year. Armstrong found the going hard at Milan-San Remo, then broke his collarbone, setting his preparation back. He won?t be competitive at the Giro.

Contador blew at Paris-Nice, then finished behind Leipheimer at Castilla y Leon. Contador?s not going to the Giro ? if Leipheimer wins, he?s number one at Astana. Prepare yourselves for the prospect of Lance Armstrong fetching bottles for Leipheimer at the Tour.

But does Leipheimer have the character and motivation to lead the team?

When I ask Leipheimer which he?d prefer – either to finish on the podium of a big race himself, or to be part of the winning team and finish nowhere himself – I?m not surprised that he doesn?t give me a straightforward reply.

?That?s a good question,? he says, thinking hard.

?To give a difficult answer to a difficult question, I?d say if it was the Tour, the most important thing now is for the team to win, not me. I?ve already been on the podium there [in 2007], so I know what that?s like. But if it?s any other race, then I?d want to be on the podium myself.?

Half an hour after the end of the interview, my phone rings. It?s Leipheimer.

?Hey, that question about podiums of finishing further down but the team wins,? he says.

?How about if I win? That way, I kill two birds with one stone.?

DARK HORSE

Looking at Leipheimer?s palmares and the way he?s still steadily improving at 35 – this spring has arguably been his strongest yet – he could yet progress further in the major stage races too. And not just in the Tour de France. Why not in the Giro?

Or as he puts it, ?I?m the dark horse for the Giro overall. And if it comes to a point where it?s a question of going for it and getting a podium in the Tour of Italy, I wouldn?t think about the Tour de France. It?s not like I?ll be passing up on that opportunity.?

Levi Leipheimer, the first American to finish in the top three in all three major Tours?

?It would be pretty cool, something to be proud of. I don?t rule out that possibility at all,? Leipheimer says.

To read the rest of the interview, buy the July edition of Cycle Sport, in all good newsagents now.

imageRELATED LINKS

Exclusive: Levi Leipheimer training photo gallery

Cycle Sport July 2009 on sale now: What’s in the issue

www.cyclesport.co.uk