By Austin Murphy
May 15, 2009

Levi Leipheimer doesn't need sunglasses at the poker table. The 35-year-old Astana rider, currently enjoying the best season of his career, seems to be under the impression that he will be fined $100 per facial expression.

"I get that a lot," Leipheimer allowed in a phone interview from the team hotel after last Wednesday's Stage 5 of the Giro d'Italia. "People tell me, 'You look so effortless, why don't you attack?' But it looks a lot easier on TV, you know?"

The wiry 35-year-old maintained that stoic mien throughout the final agonizing kilometers of Stage 5, where we saw for the first time who will contend for this grand tour, and who will spend the next fortnight logging training miles and hunting for stage wins. It's not especially surprising that Lance Armstrong, some seven weeks removed from a snapped clavicle, would find himself in the latter category. The question is, can the 37-year-old close the gap -- more of a gulf, really -- between himself and Levi between now and July?

The drama that unfolded on the slopes of Alpe de Suisi underscored how unforgiving and devoid of sentiment this sport can be. With his old friend Ivan Basso and Basso's Liquigas henchmen setting a murderous pace up a 25k Alpe, Armstrong was dropped more than three miles from the finish. As in the old days, he was escorted to the top by a cordon of loyal consiglieres, the difference being that, by the time he crossed the line on Wednesday, he was an afterthought in this race, which he will now use as training for the Tour de France.

In a now-familiar display of magnanimity -- the Texan has had little choice but to serve as Leipheimer's domestique in earlier races this season -- Armstrong assured reporters that he would happily work for Levi in the Giro. Should Leipheimer finding himself atop the podium on May 31, we might be treated to the sight of him slipping Lance an envelope containing a cut of his winnings ... or possibly a generous gift certificate to Baby Gap.

"Just as George Steinbrenner once derisively referred to Dave Winfield as Mr. May, Leipheimer has been cycling's Mr. February, owning the Tour of Cali, which he's won three straight years, but seeming to drift back to the pack as the season progressed. Of course, he's earned some impressive post-Memorial Day results -- winning the Tour of Germany (2005) and the Dauphine-Libere ('06), earning podium spots and stage wins in the Vuelta a Espana and Tour de France. It's just that this native Montanan seems sharper when the days are shorter, before his rivals have ridden their way into shape.

For reasons explored below, the wily, wiry veteran is holding his early form long than usual in '09. Earlier in his career, he has been accused of lacking a predatory instinct. What he's missing, in fact, is a sudden closing burst, such as the Exocet missile race leader Danilo DiLuca ignited to seize Tuesday's stage. But while Leipheimer may not win grand tour mountain stages, he's always around at the end. He loses a few seconds on those days, but seldom fails to pull that time back -- with interest -- in the time trials. Which is where Stage 12 on May 21st comes in. The parcours that day calls for an unusually long (60k) and hilly time trial up the Ligurian coast. Yes, Leipheimer is sitting fourth right now in the general classification. But he happens to be stronger in this discipline than most, if not all, of the Big Names surrounding him in the Top 10.

He's won three out of the four time trials he's contested this season -- the biggest single reason he's won three stage races in '09: the Tour of California, the Vuelta Castilla y Leon -- where Armstrong broke his collarbone, stunting his comeback -- and a New Mexican gem named The Tour of the Gila.

When a question is posed about those jackrabbit starts, Leipheimer treats it as an opportunity to channel the Sonoma County Chamber of Commerce:

"Where I live, in Sonoma County, we have amazing mountain biking, which I do all fall. Sometimes I remind myself that I shouldn't ride, because it's the off-season, you're supposed to let yourself get a little out of shape. But I just want to get out there every day."

Yes, he had his usual superb early-season results. But this year he seems to clinging to that extraordinary level of fitness longer than usual. (It couldn't be that the peloton is getting cleaner, could it?) In searching for an explanation, he mentions the disguised blessing of the fractured tailbone he suffered while winning the Tour of California. To heal that hairline break, he reports, "I took a good ten days easy" during a time he would have been "training super hard." The result? "I felt more fresh than normal."

Fresh is good. After the 248-kilometer slog that was Stage 6 on Thursday, the victims riders will pedal another 244 k on Friday. When they're finished with that, they'll only have two weeks to go! And you wonder why some of these guys are tempted to send a friend on a covert mission to the farmacia, or open a vein, in the privacy of their hotel rooms, and upload a bagful of oxygen-rich blood.

Speaking of which, Thursday's winner was Michele Scarponi, who joined a small group of breakaway riders at the 50k mark, escaped from the escapees, then valiantly repelled the peloton's attempts to bring him back. Successful breakaways are among the coolest things in all of sport -- cycling's equivalent of the recovered on-side kick, the game-winning half-court shot, the suicide squeeze.

Good for Scarponi, who recently completed an 18-month suspension for his involvement in the Operacion Puerto doping scandal. He's paid his debt, and is (hopefully, ideally, theoretically) demonstrating that it's possible to win without help from such low-lifes as Puerto overlord Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes.

Despite it's length, Friday's stage was not expected to cause any great upheaval in the general classification. Leipheimer will finish in the main group, nervously side-eying the guys he'll be battling for a podium spot: Thomas Lovkvist, the emerging star from Columbia-Highroad; ever-dangerous Dennis Menchov of Rabobank, and Aussie all-'rounder Michael Rogers. He agrees that the long TT on May 21st could be huge for him, but immediately puts his emotions in check, warning, "There are a lot of hard days between now and then."

Spoken like a true stoic, sir.

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