Levi Leipheimer, I'm pretty sure, never asked that his fellow Sonoma County residents treat him as someone heroic.

But we've been calling the Santa Rosan a hometown hero since 2006, when he raced through the county in the inaugural Tour of California.

Right then, Leipheimer was hip-deep into doping. He has now admitted that his sophisticated, often doctor-administered regimen included popping testosterone pills, injecting the red-blood-cell booster EPO and increasing the oxygen-carrying capacity of his blood through prohibited transfusions.

In testimony that helped anti-doping authorities construct a devastating case against his former teammate and friend Lance Armstrong, Leipheimer confessed to deciding early on in his racing career "that in order to be successful in professional cycling it was necessary to use performance-enhancing drugs."

For eight years he systematically cheated. He says now he had to because he believed everyone he competed against was doing it, too.

IN JULY OF 2007, Leipheimer mutely accepted a bump up to third place in the Tour de France after leader Michael Rasmussen was ejected for missing mandatory drug tests. Leipheimer finished just 31 seconds behind the eventual winner.

The following month he returned to Santa Rosa to be showered with proclamations and praise from a welcome-home crowd of hundreds, though both before and during the Tour he'd slipped into apartments and hotel rooms to transfuse doped blood.

We'll each of us decide to what degree, given the pressures he was under, such behavior was understandable, forgivable or even acceptable. But it's clearly not the sort of conduct that inspires or sustains a public perception that he's a man of exceptional character.

Though Leipheimer has crashed badly before, the fall he took this past week makes all his previous injuries seem like skinned knees.

HE'S BEEN STRIPPED of that 2007 Tour de France third-place title and every other victory he scored from 1999 to 2006. On Thursday his current team, Omega Pharma-Quick-Step, suspended him. Just months ago, he withdrew from consideration for a return to the Olympic Games.

Suddenly the racer who was once near the top of the world has nowhere to go but up. As Leipheimer seeks to start back, it's important for us to remember that he has sworn that he's been clean the past five years — the golden-age period in which he won the Tour of California three times, earned a Bronze Medal in the &‘08 Beijing Olympics and created the spectacularly successful Sonoma County benefit rides of the GranFondo.

In a new message to GranFondo supporters, Leipheimer writes, "I truly regret letting you down."

He says the admissions made public this past week were terrifying to him chiefly because "I was afraid of how those I cared about would react. I didn't know whether they would be willing to understand why I made these choices and whether they would continue to invest and believe in the good that (his wife) Odessa and I have tried to do with the notoriety this career has provided us."

He continues, "Regardless of the mistakes I've made, nothing lessens my commitment to cycling and the good it can do. I hope you understand that the GranFondo is not about me or my racing accolades, my successes or failures.

"It's about much more than that. I hope you believe in this as I do, and that you'll join us again next year on October 5th..."

Leipheimer also has pledged to do what he can to assure that young cyclists pursuing dreams on the pro circuit aren't tempted to ride down the same path that he was.

The quest to restore the international sport of cycle racing following the disgrace of Armstrong, Leipheimer et al is a worthy one, and one perhaps in need of a hero.

(Chris Smith is at 521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.)