The move to retirement, for many successful professional athletes, is like driving from asphalt onto a beach. They stop. They stall. They sink all the way up to their egos. They can't go forward and they can't go backward. They're stuck, bewildered, like how did I get here. Levi Leipheimer will not be driving one of those cars. He has the GranFondo. You might as well call it the GranConduit.
"The Fondo has been really good for our family," said Odessa Gunn, Leipheimer's wife. "The transition from a pro cyclist to a regular person can be tough. The Fondo has been as good for Levi as anyone riding in it. It has enabled him to focus on something other than (competitive) cycling."
Asked if he saw the Fondo four years ago as his eventual passage to a life beyond the Tour of California and European racing, Leipheimer said he never saw it that way. "In the beginning I thought a couple hundred people might show up," he said.
You know, let's have a nice, quiet ride and then hit the Riviera restaurant for dinner.
Four years later the event has grown to 7,500 and something that once started as a nice nod to the community has turned into this: At the end of his days, Leipheimer would love to look back and be remembered first as the GranFondo guy.
"I would trade all the medals I have won for that honor," Leipheimer said.
You would trade your Olympic medal?
Your podium finish at the Tour de France?
Your three victories at the Tour of California?
"Those medals happened because I was selfish for my own goals," Leipheimer said. "The Fondo is for everyone else. After so many people have taken care of me during my career, this was my way to take care of somebody else."
By donating the proceeds, after expenses, to communities, public service agencies, cancer programs, shelters, Forget Me Not Farm and Tour of California operations. It is a long-range view Leipheimer seeks because it is the long-range view he feels he must seek.
"If you were to pin me down," he said, "I would say one more year (of competitive world class cycling)."
For her part, Gunn will exert zero influence on her husband's decision.
"I never want him to see me leaning one way or another," she said. "I want it to be his decision all the way and I'll support him whatever he does. See, you have to understand our relationship. We give each other total freedom to be ourselves. In fact, I am obsessed with freedom."
If he wanted, Leipheimer could reduce himself to a collection of awards. He has the skins on the wall to remind anyone of his skills. But he has no desire to have his life neatly reduced to about 15 years of cycling. Results are fine in and among themselves, for the adrenalin produced by elite competition is a drug unlike any other. It moves athletes to extraordinary moments. And Leipheimer has been truly driven. No one will ever accuse him of not applying himself.
"I have raced a lot and I want to race enough," he said, "that when I retire people will still want to come to the Fondo."