- Bonnie D. Ford, ESPN Senior Writer
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Three-time Tour of California winner Levi Leipheimer has signed a two-year deal with Team RadioShack, choosing to continue racing with Lance Armstrong, manager Johan Bruyneel and an organization Leipheimer says is the best fit for him.
"The last two years of my career have been the best, and that's because of the team Johan assembled," said Leipheimer, who also followed Bruyneel to Astana after the 2007 season when the Discovery Channel team folded.
Leipheimer, who will turn 36 in October, is the latest rider to join a roster that will be loaded with experience and somewhat shorter on younger talent, at least for the 2010 season.
Led by Armstrong, who will try to win his eighth Tour de France next year, RadioShack has announced the signings of support riders Jose Luis Rubiera of Spain and Sergio Paulinho of Portugal. Several other riders from Astana -- not including reigning Tour champion Alberto Contador -- are expected to migrate to the new U.S.-based team. Sept. 1 is the date when teams are free to discuss transfers.
But Leipheimer, a Montana native who lives in Santa Rosa, Calif., said his age won't prevent him from remaining one of the most consistent stage racers in the peloton.
"There's a few factors," he said. "I started late. I still have the desire and passion to ride the bike. There's a trend now for riders to go longer and longer. I feel like I'm still getting better."
Leipheimer looked strong at this year's Tour until he crashed on a turn late in Stage 12. He was able to finish the stage but was diagnosed with a broken wrist the next morning and could not continue. He had previously finished sixth in this year's Giro d'Italia and won the Tour of the Gila in New Mexico. Leipheimer has not raced since the Tour de France but is slated to start in the Tour of Missouri next week even though he is not in peak form.
"I think I can be a captain on the road and help someone else win, but to win myself -- I really doubt that," he said.
A former downhill skier, Leipheimer raced as an amateur in Belgium and eventually signed with the Bruyneel-directed U.S. Postal Service team -- although Leipheimer and Armstrong rarely crossed paths, and Leipheimer was not selected to ride for Armstrong's first few Tour victories. After a surprise third-place finish in the Tour of Spain in 2001, Leipheimer jumped to the Dutch Rabobank team and then to Germany's Gerolsteiner and logged three top-10 Tour finishes as a team leader.
However, Leipheimer didn't achieve his dream of getting on a Tour de France podium until he came back under Bruyneel's wing at Discovery Channel in 2007. Leipheimer finished third to teammate Contador that year, the same season in which he won his first Tour of California.
Astana was controversially excluded from the Tour in 2008 because of doping scandals that preceded Bruyneel's tenure there, prompting Leipheimer's supporters to start an ardent "Let Levi Ride" campaign that fell on deaf ears. Leipheimer made the most of his season, taking his second title in California and finishing a narrow second to Contador at the Tour of Spain. That gave Leipheimer three podium (top three) appearances in Grand Tours.
Leipheimer said his relationship with Armstrong was a crucial factor in his decision to sign with RadioShack. The two men became close this season and worked for each other in several races.
The Fort Worth, Texas, based electronics chain also should offer more stability than Astana did this year, as some of that team's Kazakh sponsors failed to meet their financial commitments early this year, resulting in delayed payments for riders and bringing the team to the brink of default at one point.
Leipheimer said he is often asked why he would continue on with a team where Armstrong will be the leader for the Tour rather than trying to pursue his own ambitions. "It's not a handicap," he said. "It forces me to ride stronger."
If anything, Leipheimer has established more of a separate identity -- and become better known in the United States -- while dividing his time between leading and support duties than he was able to do when he was the reserved leader of two European teams. He and his wife, former Canadian racer Odessa Gunn, publicly support animal rescue and children's causes in northern California.
Leipheimer also organized a ride in his home area in early October that will raise funds for charity and to help Santa Rosa mount a bid to host a stage of the Tour of California as the city has in every previous edition. Some 3,500 riders signed up for the ride before entries to the Gran Fondo -- modeled after similar events in Italy -- were closed.
The Tour of California has been shifted from February to May, enabling the race to go to higher terrain and perhaps include a first-ever mountaintop finish. Leipheimer said he expects to go for a fourth straight win there.
U.S.-based Garmin-Slipstream announced several roster additions early Tuesday morning, including veteran South African sprinter Robbie Hunter, who will provide help for maturing talent Tyler Farrar; top domestic rider Tom Zirbel, who finished second to Garmin's Dave Zabriskie in the U.S. time trial championships; Belgian classics specialist Johan Vansummeren; and Peter Stetina, who has been riding for the organization's Under-23 team.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com.
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