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Leipheimer suspended from cycling in doping scandal


Levi Leipheimer, a professional cycling star and the man most responsible for the sport's exploding popularity in Sonoma County, admitted publicly Wednesday to years of doping and has been suspended from competitions for six months.

The bombshell revelations place Leipheimer, 38, at the center of yet another doping scandal in the sport of international cycling and also threaten to diminish the reputation of a man known locally as much for his community involvement as for his skills on a bicycle.

Leipheimer is an Olympic medalist, a third-place finisher on the Tour de France, a three-time winner of the prestigious Tour of California pro race and the man behind one of the nation's biggest cycling event, Levi's GranFondo, a charity benefit staged each fall in Sonoma County.

His suspension is in effect during the pro cycling offseason. He would be eligible to race after March 1.

The revelations are contained in a Sept. 21 affidavit that Leipheimer submitted to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency during its investigation of doping allegations against Lance Armstrong. The affidavit and a companion admission of doping were released Wednesday along with more than 1,000 pages of evidence related to the case.

Leipheimer wrote he used the banned substances EPO and testosterone and underwent prohibited blood transfusions off-and-on between 1999 and 2007, which includes several years in which he participated in the Tour de France, the sport's pinnacle race.

Leipheimer stated he began blood transfusions in 2005 after he was introduced to Dr. Michele Ferrari on a training sojourn with Armstrong on the Island of Tenerife off the coast of Spain. Leipheimer said he and his wife, Odessa Gunn, accepted an invitation to join Armstrong and singer Sheryl Crow, who then was dating Armstrong, on the island for several days.

Leipheimer told of renting an apartment that same year in the south of France with now-disgraced cyclist Floyd Landis so that the pair could store their blood and "re-infuse" it.

Leipheimer also stated he ferried EPO from a rest stop south of Girona, Spain, where he lives and trains during the cycling season, for use by cyclists George Hincapie and Michael Barry, who along with Leipheimer were on the Discovery Channel Team.

Leipheimer did not return messages seeking comment Wednesday.

But in a statement he released to the Wall Street Journal, the Santa Rosa cyclist accepted responsibility for his actions while at the same time essentially stating he was only doing what everyone else was doing at the time.

"I regret that this was the state of affairs in the sport that we love and I chose as my career," he wrote. "I am sorry that I was forced to make the decisions I made. I admit that I didn't let doping deter me from my dream. I admit that I used banned substances."

Carlos Perez, founder of Bike Monkey, which organizes Leipheimer's hugely popular GranFondo cycling event in Sonoma County, said Leipheimer had no choice but to dope.

"These were the options they (riders) were faced with. You either do that to compete at this level, or you pack your bags and go home," Perez said.

But Leipheimer, who over the years steadfastly refused to broach the subject of whether he was involved with doping, surely will face blowback from those who feel betrayed by his duplicity.

Steven Cozza, a Petaluma cyclist who turned pro in 2006, agreed Leipheimer faced more pressure to take banned substances than athletes who entered the sport after more rigorous testing methods were put in place.

"But I do know that there is a choice, and I've always chosen not to" dope, Cozza said. "The biggest reason is I didn't want to look back and not be 100 percent proud of everything I've done in my life."

Cozza, who stopped competing professionally in February because of a chronic illness, said cyclists who played by the rules often lost out on achieving more fame and money.

"A lot of other cyclists didn't make it as far as they wanted to, and usually you don't hear about them," Cozza said.

In a statement Wednesday, Travis Tygart, CEO of USADA, wrote that Leipheimer and 11 other cyclists riding with the U.S. Postal Service Team were part of "the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program(s) that sport has ever seen."

Leipheimer rode with the team in 2000 and 2001. But his affidavit covers his entire professional racing career, which often crossed paths with Armstrong and members of his entourage.

Leipheimer stated he first started using EPO in 1999 while riding for Saturn. EPO, or erythropoietin, is a red-blood-cell booster normally used to treat anemia but also boosts endurance in athletes.

Leipheimer stated he injected the drug for three years and later administered it intravenously on the advice of Dr. Luis Garcia del Moral, the team doctor for the Postal Service team.

Leipheimer stated Johan Bruyneel, the team's director, was upset to learn that the cyclist was using EPO. But Leipheimer stated that was because Bruyneel had heard it from someone else.

Leipheimer said he realized their concern was not that he had used EPO, "but that because they had not been told of my use, and I might not be using it safely, that I could have had a positive test which could have lead to problems for the team."

Leipheimer stated his relationship with Armstrong cooled in 2010 after Leipheimer was subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury in California.

Before Wednesday, Leipheimer never discussed any of this publicly. There are those who will question his decision to do so now only after the USADA released evidence in the case against Armstrong, who it banned from the sport of cycling and stripped of his seven Tour de France titles for his refusal to contest the doping allegations.

Leipheimer stated in his Wall Street Journal statement that he felt a "need to be involved" in helping to clean up the sport of cycling, but only after he was approached by federal anti-doping authorities.

He wrote he "could have come forward sooner. But would that have accomplished anything -- other than to end my career? One rider coming forward and telling his story in the face of cycling's code of silence would not have fixed a problem that was institutional."

Perez said Leipheimer was "distraught" that the revelations of his doping will hurt the charitable work he and his wife are involved with. That includes the GranFondo, which finances much of Santa Rosa's role in the annual Tour of California pro race, and is a benefit for the Humane Society of Sonoma County's Forget Me Not Farm.

Perez said he assured Leipheimer that the revelations of his doping would not make the charitable work "any less important."

In exchange for his testimony, Leipheimer received a reduced penalty of a six-month suspension, which began Sept. 1 and will cover the off-season for professional cyclists.

His records of competition from June 1, 1999, through July 30, 2006, and from July 7 through July 29, 2007, when Leipheimer took third place overall in the Tour de France, were disqualified with the deal.

Leipheimer's three victories in the Tour of California from 2007 to 2009 will stand, as will his bronze medal finish in the individual time trial in the 2008 Olympic Games.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.