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PADECKY: Film shows how Leipheimer found his home

Elite cyclists, by the nature of their sport, must build an impenetrable barrier around themselves. Show no weakness. Never give a hint of fatigue, doubt or submission, or they'll be eaten alive. The sharks will circle, having smelled the blood in the water. That's why no one blinked in the movie theater Friday night, as they watched that scene, when the embrace came.

Levi Leipheimer was dedicating the Time Trial in the 2012 Tour of California to Vanessa Hauswald, the wife of good friend Yuri. Vanessa was battling cancer. Levi said he would win the stage for her. He didn't. He finished second. After the race the camera caught them, Levi saying he tried, Vanessa saying that's OK, and then they hugged. It was the kind of hug that cuts off the blood supply to extremities, the kind of hug you give someone going off to war or to one just returning. Leipheimer reached down, grabbed a flower bouquet and gave it to her. The camera lingered in the quiet.

Not a peep came from the crowd of 400 in Theater 12 at the Roxy. Levi Leipheimer, as good as any of them at putting up the competitive shield, had a moist eye. Vanessa had two of them. Right then, if anyone wanted to locate the source of the heartbeat for Levi's GranFondo, they saw it. Right there. Right then. The Fondo is about connecting with humanity and there it was, at its most unambiguous, the archetypal image of community outreach.

The GranDonut

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"I'm kind of a wallflower," Leipheimer said after the movie, "The Levi Effect." I knew this movie would require me to come out of my comfort zone."

It was no more evident than in Leipheimer's description of his boyhood home of Butte, Montana. The visuals provided the backdrop of that description. "Two weeks of summer every year," was how Leipheimer phrased it. Butte has many fine qualities but "cosmopolitan" probably wouldn't be one of them. Leipheimer felt like a fish out of water, especially when locals would see him in spandex riding his bike. Montanans, and this is not a hasty judgment, don't do spandex.

"I just wanted to get out of there," Leipheimer said, "and maybe to prove a point." That what he was doing wasn't odd, that he deserved more than a snicker, that there was value and dignity and honor in riding a bicycle. In high school he moved to Salt Lake City. One got the sense that Utah was a stop for him on his way to somewhere else.

That somewhere else became Santa Rosa in 1996. As uncomfortable, unappreciated, isolated and lonely as he was in Butte, Leipheimer found Sonoma County to be exactly the opposite for him. Yes, we have heard Leipheimer speak many times of his love for this area. Now we know why. He is part of something here, not apart as he was before. Here he doesn't have to explain or justify what he does for a living. People here get it, welcome it, encourage it.

Leipheimer is finally home and in the 80 minutes and 49 seconds of the movie you see how home came to him. It started with his Tour de France podium in 2007 and his three Tour of California victories and that Olympic bronze medal that pushed his name to the marquee. But, with a little help from his wife and friends, Leipheimer grew, as he said, "to be a better person and a better cyclist." Emphasis, by the way, on "person."

It was a changing we saw in the movie, from a kid cyclist hell bent on riding the edge to a fully activated and immersed adult. On film we saw Leipheimer on podiums and dropping pelotons. We heard competitors bubble about his skills, one even mentioning Leipheimer would have been the greatest American cyclist of the last 15 years if it wasn't for Lance Armstrong.

"It all seems so surreal, to watch myself on the screen," said Levi Leipheimer, who came out of his comfort zone and found he didn't break out in hives. Just friends.

(You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.)


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