Leipheimer fans deflated by doping admissions
By JEREMY HAY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Resignation and sadness greeted hometown cycling hero Levi Leipheimer’s admission that for almost a decade he used illegal performance-enhancing drugs to race in the sport’s top echelons.
“It’s tragic anytime a professional athlete cheats to win, and that’s really what we’re talking about here,” said Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Shirlee Zane, a cycling enthusiast.
Leipheimer and other top cyclists who raced with seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong admitted in affidavits that they used banned substances as part of a sophisticated doping program managed and coordinated by Armstrong and team managers.
To those who admired Leipheimer “totally,” as did Gus Greenstein, a founder of the Caravaners cycling club at Santa Rosa’s Maria Carrillo High School, the news was deflating. Club members rode with Leipheimer last year.
“It makes me wonder if I’d want the Caravaners to continue that relationship,” said Greenstein, who now is a junior at Amherst College but remains involved in the club.
The many questions raised by the Leipheimer’s admission include what the implications might be for the county’s two premiere cycling events, The Amgen Tour of California and Levi’s GranFondo charity ride, both of which he helped orchestrate.
Officials involved with both events said they were bigger now than simply Leipheimer, who founded the GranFondo and lobbied for the tour’s Sonoma County stage, which together pump millions of dollars into the local economy and also boost the county’s profile.
“Levi’s icing on the cake, but the event itself is so amazing and I would hope and I trust that that wouldn’t change,” said Raissa de la Rosa, Santa Rosa’s economic development specialist, who spearheads the local organizing effort for the Amgen tour.
As for the GranFondo, she said: “People are coming to ride for the experience, and it is not about someone; it’s about something.”
Leipheimer’s personal explanation of his doping that was published Wednesday by the Wall Street Journal will aid the cyclist’s cause, she added, because it “carried with it some dignity in that he’s really turning the page.”
Officials at Bike Monkey, the organizer of the GranFondo, said they do not expect the revelations to damage the event, which drew 7,000 riders this year.
Long-term, said Bike Monkey spokesman Greg Fisher, “I suspect that this will be viewed as a turning point, and that these guys will be viewed a part of the solution in making a better sport.”
Fisher said the revelations about Leipheimer also have been edited into a documentary of the cyclist’s life and racing career that will air at theaters nationwide Oct. 23.
The GranFondo has raised about $150,000 for Forget Me Not Farm, which operates animal therapy programs for child victims of abuse or neglect and is part of the Sonoma Humane Society in Santa Rosa.
The program executive director said that she saw no issue with accepting money from the event, and predicted the Fondo’s popularity wouldn’t suffer.
“I’m not worried about it,” said Carol Rathmann.
“Levi has been very supportive to the community and I would hope that the community would be supportive back to him,” she said. “I think he showed a lot of courage making the statement that he did, I’m sure it wasn’t easy but it felt honest and heartfelt.”
Greenstein, who has an autographed poster of Leipheimer pinned to his wall, and others said there was a certain inevitability to Wednesday’s disclosures.
“I mean there was that kind of that suspicion but I was always in denial about it,” he said.
Bill Oetinger, Santa Rosa Cycling Club ride director, said, “You’d have to be pretty naive to be shocked by this.”
“It’s disappointing,” said Oetinger, who has ridden recreationally with Leipheimer, “but I think most of us in the cycling community have expected something of this sort for some time. Not just for Levi, but for all of the other riders.”
“Almost every sport has the same problems,” he said, adding that the confessions, as well as improved testing protocols, may signal a lasting change for cycling.
“It’s a big mess, but probably for the best,” Oetinger said. “We’re getting to the point where young riders have a better prospect of rising through the sport without having to consider that as an option.”
Zane said the occasion also provides a broader opportunity to have “the moral discussion: ‘Is it worth it to win at all costs?’ and to have it with our community, with our youth.”
You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or firstname.lastname@example.org.