Franck Fife, Getty Images
Levi Leipheimer, who went to high school in Salt Lake City and trains in Park City, missed this year's Tour de France when his team was not invited. But he is on the USA's cycling team headed to China.

As Carlos Sastre sipped a little bubbly during the final stage of the Tour de France on Sunday, one person who was supposed to contend for the honor of wearing the maillot journe could hardly stand it.

"It nearly killed me," Levi Leipheimer said in an interview with the Deseret News just prior to leaving for China and the 2008 Olympic Games. "I couldn't help but watch the Tour. But knowing I could have been there, that I should have been there, it was hard. Really hard."

Leipheimer, a Montana native who attended Rowland Hall-St. Mark's and still visits the state regularly to train at altitude, said he wishes his professional cycling team, Astana, had been invited to race in this year's Tour de France — after all, Astana counts two of the three podium finishers from the previous race on the roster — but there is nothing he could do about that. Doping scandals surrounding past members of the team put Astana on the black list for some of the world's biggest races.

What he can do, however, is force the cycling world to remember him during the Olympics, which begin next weekend.

"It's a little bit of some mixed emotions," Leipheimer said of his participation in the Olympics. "It's not the pinnacle of cycling, but it's the Olympics. How can you not be excited about racing in the Olympics?

"That doesn't happen for everyone. So it's a huge, huge honor to be chosen to ride in China."

Recently, Leipheimer spent a few weeks living with friends in Park City, where he and other top Utah cyclists like Burke Swindlehurst, Jeff Louder and Darren Lill logged dozens of hours training on some of Utah's most demanding roads.

He also raced the Cascade Cycling Classic in June and pulled out an overall victory over many of America's top cyclists.

Leipheimer, along with Utahn David Zabriskie, will compete in the Games' road race and time trial competitions. The road race, a seven-lap race around a 24-kilometer course, will be held on Aug. 9. Racing in

the dirty air of Beijing will test the endurance and fitness of the cyclists participating in the race, but Leipheimer said he thinks there is a solid chance an American — and not necessarily himself — will end up with a medal around his neck. With five teammates, the U.S. cycling squad may work with a strategy to set up one of two of the strongest cyclists for the win by protecting them from the wind on most of the course.

"I think we have a strong overall team," Leipheimer said. "Some of the countries have really strong riders, too. But their overall team won't be as strong, and that may give us an advantage. We have three or four guys that can win it. We can play more cards than some of the other countries."

The time trail, which Zabriskie and Leipheimer both excel in, will be a one-lap run of the same course. But there will be no team to rely on in the race against the clock on Aug. 13.

"We'll get a chance to scout out the course seven times during the road race," Leipheimer said. "There won't be any surprises out there for us."

One thing Leipheimer said he does have working in his favor is time away from the European pro tour.

"A lot of the contenders in the Tour (de France) and those that did really well," he said, "they won't have time to recover. They're busy doing other appearances and racing in other, smaller races for their sponsors because they need to cash in now while cycling is still hot over there."

On the other hand, he'll have fresh legs and a bit of an attitude when he hits the course in Beijing.

"More than anything," Leipheimer said, "it's giving me something to prove. I definitely want to go over there and show them something. I didn't get to race in the Tour this year. So, for me, this is my Tour in some ways."


E-mail: jeborn@desnews.com