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Dare to put yourself in Levi's place

  • 6/27/2006: C6: Levi Leipheimer, training in January near Rio Nido, says this year's Tour is very much up for grabs. ``The only thing is that someone else is going to win for the first time in eight years.''
    1/15/2006: A15: Levi Leipheimer of Santa Rosa, who placed sixth in the 2005 Tour de France, takes a training ride Friday on River Road near Rio Nido.
    PC: news / 1 of 2--Levi Leipheimer (CQ) of Santa Rosa, takes a training ride, Friday January 13, 2006, on River Road near Rio Nido. Leipheimer placed sixth in the Tour de France in 2005 and is preparing to compete in the Tour of California, which will start on February 19 and will make a stop in Santa Rosa. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2006
    srpsp

I don't know if I could have refused to dope.

I would like to say, conclusively, unequivocally, no, absolutely not. I ain't doping. It's wrong. It's cheating. I'd be a fraud, a joke to integrity. Couldn't look my friends in the eye. I would love to puff out my chest and proclaim to any and all: Ain't me, babe. I got standards, you know.

I wish I could say all that without a hitch. I can't.

Levi Leipheimer Through the Years

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Instead, I find myself imagining being 13 years old and it hits me like a ton of bricks. I need to ride a bike. And I dream when I do it. Of riding in the Alps. Of riding in the Tour de France. I dream of being on that seat, crunching up a mountain or skimming my way down one. Just like a million kids in America at 13, I dream of making it big. But instead of playing in the NFL or MLB or the NBA, I fantasize about cycling.

Those NFL kids, those NBA and MLB dreamers — and this is the twist — they find out early on, maybe as early as 15, when they just enter high school, they will never play pro football, baseball or basketball. They may even make it to college before reality hits. Either way, usually no later than 21, they know the answer. Isn't happening.

But for a cyclist, it's different. The cut-off line to elite competition is not so well-defined. Let's say I am 26 years old and I am Levi Leipheimer and I have spent half my life waiting for this moment. But I find, much to my surprise, I have to dope to join this exclusive fraternity. Sure, I can refuse and get dropped faster than hot lava. Either the competition blows me away or my prospective team manager doesn't appreciate my refusal to commit to the program.

The simple thing, the obvious thing, is to say no, go back to America and ride domestically in third-tier races. Make the best of it.

Could you walk away, just like that? Does that make sense? Really? Think about it.

Dedicated cyclists suffer. They like it. Yeah, I know, it's weird, but they like to punish themselves. They do it on a daily basis and they do it, actually, in private. It's not like a baseball player hitting a home run and trotting around the bases to the roar of the crowd. There's not an athlete alive who doesn't like having his or her name called in adulation. But cycling? It's suffering. Alone. Maybe with a teammate or two. Alone. For hours. On a bike that sometimes you drag up a hill with thighs that feel like stone.

You start at 13 and then you're 26 and you've suffered in relative obscurity for half your life and you're OK with that. Try to imagine an NBA player being OK with that. If you're Levi Leipheimer and it's 1999, you get to make the decision. You make the wrong decision. You dope. You wince, you get panic attacks, you get daily reminders you're dirty when you re-infuse blood or take a needle to your skin. You know it's wrong.


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