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SMITH: Leipheimer's new challenge starts at the bottom

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.


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