1 of 3
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah cyclist Levi Leipheimer, wearing the Discovery jersey, leads the pack in a 100-mile ride during a cycling camp last fall.

Recovering from a broken vertebra, David Zabriskie was not terribly surprised to find out he would not represent his cycling team at the Tour de France.

The emotions of that development, however, didn't really hit him until he stopped for lunch one day about two weeks ago.

"I went into Chipotle for a burrito," he said, referring to one of the title sponsors to his Garmin-Chipotle squad, "when I realized how much I missed being with my team. It made me realize they'd be racing without me."

The injury, suffered when Zabriskie was caught behind several other crashing cyclists at the Giro d'Italia about seven weeks ago, has kept the three-time national time trial champion out of races since. What it hasn't done, though, is keep him from reaching one of his cycling goals.

Last week, Zabriskie — along with former Salt Lake resident and Rowland Hall-St. Mark's graduate Levi Leipheimer — was officially named to the U.S. Olympic cycling team.

"It's the first time I've ever opened a bottle of champagne for myself," Zabriskie said. "It's pretty cool. It's something I had as a goal for the last couple of years, so to be on the Olympic team, that's great."

Not participating in the Tour de France is a bitter pill to swallow, the 29-year-old Zabriskie said. He was a key member of a new American cycling team — one that wanted to put a distinct stamp on a sport that has endured years of scandals dealing with drugs, steroids and cheating of various varieties.

Leipheimer, likewise, is not racing in the Tour de France this year. His new team, Astana, was excluded from the biggest race in the world because of past doping scandals — scandals that involved riders and directors no longer associated with the team.

And though both cyclists are still training hard, they will have relatively fresh legs compared to the Olympians who will have three weeks of hard riding in their recent past when the Olympics start. Those fresh legs, plus the exclusion from the Tour de France, may turn the Utah cyclists into favorites when the events are held.

To keep his competitive juices flowing, Leipheimer made a trip to Oregon last week for the Cascade Cycling Classic. The six-stage race showed the former Salt Lake resident — who was in the state training before leaving for Oregon — is in top form.

Leipheimer blazed a trail to a time-trial victory, taking the yellow jersey and never looking back. He ended the race atop the podium with Salt Lake pro Jeff Louder finishing second.

The Team Astana cyclist told the Bend (Ore.) Bulletin he is looking forward to the Olympics.

"Just training, that's all I can do right now," Leipheimer said. "Why I wanted to come to this race was to break up the training and get some racing in. It was a perfect race."

The Olympic road race will be held Aug. 9 and the time trial on Aug. 13. Leipheimer will be a favorite to medal in both, Zabriskie has his eyes squarely on the time trial event.

The time trial, which is often called the 'race of truth,' is a simple test of man and bicycle against the clock. A cyclist starts at Point A with the clock at zero and goes as fast as he can to Point B.

There is no drafting, no teamwork and no hiding in the pack.

"I've always been good at being able to focus in and train for a specific race," Zabriskie said. "I know how to zero in on something like that."

The ability to do just that resulted in Zabriskie setting a record in the Tour de France in 2005 with the fastest individual time trial when he averaged 54.676 kph over. He is still the only American cyclist to have won a stage victory in each of cycling's three grand tours.

Focusing on anything but back pain was a luxury not too long ago, though.

After helping his team earn the leader's jersey with a team time-trial victory during the first stage of the Giro, Zabriskie was forced out of the race because of the crash and resulting injury.

For a few weeks, he was unable to ride a bike without significant pain.

Keeping his legs in shape for his return to racing was a priority, and not just because of the looming Olympic Games. There was still the chance he could recover in time to race in France, and the season is far from over.

To begin his recovery, Zabriskie said he modified his road bike by flipping the handlebars upside down. He could sit more upright that way and ride for an hour or two indoors on his stationary trainer.

Slowly, his back regained it strength, and he transitioned from riding in his living room to riding on the roads of the Wasatch Front. Though not completely recovered, Zabriskie said he is on his way and expects to have a solid race in China.

"It looks like a pretty good road," said Zabriskie, who has received an early scouting report of the road the time trial will be held on. "It's got some false flats and then goes down almost like you are in Parleys — big, sweeping turns that you really don't even have to use your brakes at all."

That's good news for a guy who likes nothing more than to crank out the watts on his bicycle. No longer sporting the long mustache he and a few Garmin-Chipotle teammates wore at the start of the season, Zabriskie is without question one of the world's best time-trial cyclists. Leipheimer, who very nearly won the 2007 Tour de France thanks to a dominating time trial in the final stages of the race, also will be considered a favorite to land on the podium.

While not racing has been a disappointment for Zabriskie, he admits there have also been unexpected benefits.

"Yeah, I guess it's kind of a blessing in disguise," he said, referring to the time he's been able to spend time with his 1-month-old son, Waylon, and wife, Randi. "I've seen a lot of things I would have missed. He's just starting to laugh. I wouldn't see that, so that's been nice."

Even more nice, he said, will be joining Team USA in China and bringing home a medal.

"It's something I've wanted to do for as long as I can remember," he said. "So, yeah, I'm pretty excited about it. It's something I want to work hard for."


E-mail: [email protected]