Sitting in an alcove at the Four Seasons Hotel, Levi Leipheimer explains that holy-cow-that-was-miserable vibe he gave off after the Leadville Trail 100 Mountain Bike Race this summer.
Leipheimer won the grueling race, but at the finish line he sounded about as happy as a mud-covered cat. "That was just ridiculous. I don't know if I've suffered that much before," the world-class cyclist moaned in an interview at the time.
It's no wonder. The off-road race, contested on knobby tires on a 104-mile course that winds through mountain passes, takes place at an altitude that leaves some people gasping for breath even when they're not on a bike. It starts at 10,200 feet, drops to 9,500 feet and then climbs to nearly 13,000 feet before it's done.
"I've got to tell you, Leadville was a lot harder than I expected," the third place finisher of the 2007 Tour de France says now that the quad-burning memory has faded. "I wasn't mentally prepared for that. It was really quite painful, definitely a shock to the system."
We grabbed 20 minutes with Leipheimer, who stopped in Austin recently to join Team RadioShack teammate Lance Armstrong at the Livestrong Challenge. He's wearing jeans and a black team T-shirt and cap. He is one of the athletes who will be featured in a new documentary about the race that will be screening in Austin theaters on Thursday. Armstrong, the seven-time Tour de France champion, helped turn the Leadville race into a major event when he lined up at the start in 2008. He finished second that year, then came back and won it in 2009.
The race really hit the big time this year, drawing some 1,600 riders, including about a dozen from Austin.
Armstrong sat out the 2010 edition, nursing hip bruises from the battering he took in the Tour de France. Leipheimer dove in, though, getting thrown off his bike and hitting the dirt at one point but still managing to set a new course record of 6 hours and 16 minutes.
Leipheimer says the misery he felt at the finish line evaporated in a day or two, and he'd like to do it again, if it doesn't conflict with other races on his 2011 calendar. So far, that lineup includes the Tour of California in May, the Tour de France in July and a new seven-day, 600-mile race called the Quiznos Challenge in Colorado in August.
Leipheimer rode with Armstrong on Team RadioShack at this year's Tour de France. "I was on track to have my second best Tour ever - looking at fifth place. Then I got a sinus infection halfway through that derailed that," he says.
He wrapped up the 2010 season in September at the U.S. Professional Time Trail Championships, where he was edged out by just more than a tenth of a second to up-and-comer Taylor Phinney.
At 37 (he celebrated his birthday in Austin ), he's seen the sport rocked in recent years by doping allegations.
"Cycling needs more unification," Leipheimer says. "Cycling is doing a fantastic job in certain areas like anti-doping testing and the biological passport. But the rules need to be followed by everyone so that the process can run its course fairly, most of all for the sake of the sport."
He says cycling will survive regardless, but everyone needs to come together to make it more successful.
Leipheimer, a native of Montana, got his start as a downhill skier, not a cyclist. He began biking in 1987 to train for ski racing, then gave up the two wooden boards for a pair of rolling wheels. He turned pro in 1997, and two years later joined Armstrong on the U.S. Postal Service Team.
He's ridden for several teams since then, finishing in the top 10 at the Tour de France four times, including a third-place finish with the Discovery Channel Team in 2007.
He lives in California with his wife, Odessa, and a menagerie of dogs and cats. Like other cyclists on Team RadioShack, Leipheimer rides for someone who has cancer - a 3-year-old boy in Santa Rosa, Calif., named Nate who has a rare form of brain cancer.
"I think we're all affected and touched by the disease," Leipheimer says. "It's just a no-brainer for us to get behind Livestrong and do what we can."
Relive the race on film
Want to hear more about Levi Leipheimer's experience at the Leadville Trail 100? 'Race Across the Sky 2010,' a documentary about this year's race, will be shown at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Southpark Meadows, Arbor Cinema at Great Hills, Cinemark Hill Country Galleria and Metropolitan 14 in Austin, and at Tinseltown Pflugerville and Cinemark Cedar Park. A panel discussion with Leipheimer and other athletes will be streamed live as part of the event. Tickets are $12.50. For more information and advance tickets, go to www.fathomevents.com.