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Transcript: An interview with Levi Leipheimer

Levi Leipheimer talked about his use of performance enhancing drugs on Tuesday, October, 16, 2012

John Burgess / PD
Published: Tuesday, October 16, 2012 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, October 16, 2012 at 11:32 p.m.

Santa Rosa-based cyclist Levi Leipheimer sat down with Press Democrat Sports Columnist Bob Padecky to discuss his recent admission of doping, his cycling career, his relationship with former teammate Lance Armstrong and how recent events have changed his life.

PD: How relieved are you are you that this has finally come out, that you were able to tell your side of the story? Has to feel like some sense of closure for you, this whole process.

LL: Absolutely there's a sense of closure. In one sense, the story is still being told, this will always be a part of my story and my life. In one sense, everything is on the table. There's certainly nothing to hide from. The biggest sense of relief in all of this came when I decided to stop using performance-enhancing substances back in 2007. For me, that was the biggest sense of relief because I felt at the time I can complete without doing this. I no longer have to deal with that stress -- trying to live in this alternate world where we are doing it but we are trying to act like we are not doing it.

PD: When you found yourself able to compete and compete successfully, did you look back and say, “Did I really need to do this at all?”

LL: There is a sense of that, yes. I definitely would have hoped it was that way, never having to cross that line and use performance-enhancing substances. None of us meant to do that, but there was a moment in the sport in which the testing had really caught up. We felt like if there was going to be a time to stop and take a stance on personally what we were going to do, that was the moment. It was a little scary. I didn't know if we really could compete without it. When I kept getting results without it, it was a huge relief. The Tour of California, the bronze medal in the Olympic Games. Second place in the Vuelta. Those are the results that I am proud of because they came with a huge sense of relief.

PD: Because they came clean?

LL: They came clean, yes.

PD: Describe the pressure to dope.

LL: Professional cycling at that highest elite level is a completely separate world than me riding around in Sonoma County with my friends and the GranFondo. It's a separate business altogether. It's really tough to convey to people the way I felt and the way I perceived the choice back then. If you read all the riders' admissions from last week it's funny it was like we all had the exact same story, yet it was each individual's statement. And everyone said we don't want to make excuses, but at the time we felt we really had no choice. It was so casually discussed in the peloton. No one felt like they were cheating. They didn't feel like they were cheating each other, you know. Obviously, we knew the rules and we were breaking the rules, but it was easy to be in that situation and just realize everybody was doing it. After a while, you justified it to yourself. We were like frogs in boiling water.

PD: There's a saying in politics that if you say the lie long enough you start to believe it. Was there ever a moment you felt guilt?

LL: When I say it didn't feel like cheating, I want to be clear. Of course it was.

PD: When you are around doping long enough, it doesn't feel awkward?

LL: At first you go from a 13-year old boy who falls in love with cycling and you have this idea, this vision what the sport is like. Along the way, little by little, honestly, you get your heart broken, piece by piece. You come to realize what it was really like. You're so far down the road after a while it became easy to cross that line. It was a huge internal struggle, though. Do I not make this decision to dope and continue to see how far I can go? Or do I regret it for the rest of my life because I didn't find out how good I was? At the time, we thought if I don't do it but that other guy's doing it and he wins this race? I know I can be as good as him, so I want to try to find out if I can win that race, too. It was a damned if you do, damned if you don't. I didn't want to live the rest of my life bitter regretting finding out.

PD: Hindsight is always 20-15, if you had to do it all over again, would you?

LL: It's an easy question to ask, for sure. I can say for sure, no, I wouldn't do it. You know what, I can’t go back and change what I did. I have to look forward. Now I have to deal with it and reconcile it and make it right.

PD: You had mentioned you were scared about how this was going to be received. What's been the response since you've come out?

LL: I've had a lot of emails and a lot of texts from friends. It's nice because I found out that these are true friends. Their support means the world to me right now. I wouldn't have been able to make it through all this without their support. That's been all positive and I feel very lucky to have a community, especially here in Sonoma County, a lot of friends, a lot of locals, people I don't know that will reach out and say "You know what, you made a mistake, you owned up to it and you told the truth and we respect you for that and here's to looking forward."

Q: Have you received any negative reaction?

LL: Not personally, but I have read some articles with the way (criticism) is now . . . You can definitely come across that right?

PD: There's somebody in Afghanistan right now that has an opinion about this.

LL: I think if people could talk to me personally about it they wouldn't have that reaction. For sure, they are entitled to feel the way they feel but maybe they would try to put themselves in our situation and sympathize a little bit.

PD: When you get the cycling bug at 13 and have to make a decision about doping at 19….

LL: No, no, I was much older than that. 1999, I was 26.

PD: Do you abandon the dream you've had for half your life? How tough was that decision to cross over?

LL: It was really tough. Really tough doesn't even begin to describe it. It was a back-and-forth struggle of guilt and sadness, I guess. I was forced to make a decision. I felt like I had to make a choice and cross that line and take drugs. It was an intense internal struggle. Do I do it and cross the line and do something you're taught as a child that is not right? It's against the rules. Or do I not do it (dope) and forget the last 13 years of my life that I spent dedicating myself and risk being bitter and regretful?

PD: In USADA's Reasoned Decision, it was stated that when David Zabriskie decided to dope, he went to his room and cried. He was so stressed out. When you made your decision, did you have moments alone which you got very emotional?

LL: I had emotional moments, not just in the beginning but throughout the entire eight years that I had participated. There were moments when I wasn't sure I had done things (doping) correctly. When I say done things correctly, I mean did follow the instructions and take the right amount or the timing of it? So I was freaking out that I would test positive. My mind playing tricks on me made me really reflect on what I was doing and was it worth it? That was actually towards the end and it was a big reason why I stopped. It was getting more overwhelming because we kept drawing that line in the sand farther and farther, you know, as you learned what the other riders were doing to achieve their results. The entire time I was like, OK, I have to do this as well. And take another risk and move that line in the sand farther.

PD: You had to feel like you weren't in control of your life.

LL: Yes, there were times like that for sure. I remember having a couple of panic attacks. It was June 2006. It was right towards the end (of his doping). I was taking out blood in preparation for the Tour de France. We would take EPO to replace the blood so we could still train. I was taking EPO and I wasn't sure if I had done it the night before because I had been doing it for a while. After a while you're zombie-like. It's painful every time you do because it reminds you you are doing something wrong.

PD: Physically painful?

LL: No, I don't mean physically painful. That it was a reminder you were breaking the rules, you were doing something you weren't supposed to. So the testers came the next morning and I didn't remember I had done something the night before. My initial reaction was that I was fine I'll take the test but later I second guessed myself and I was having a panic attack, now for the next couple of weeks. I was in Girona (Spain).

PD: When you decided to quit in 2007, was it a series of these kinds of things that made you say enough?

LL: Yeah and also the testing that is known as the biological passport which really narrowed the window on how much you could fluctuate your blood profile for example. And I think it was possible for people to do just a little bit of things, like less blood, less EPO. But you know what it was like, I felt like the amount you would gain from doing it just didn't outweigh the stress and the risk. And also if riders were going to continue to do it, what they would gain it over riders who weren't doing it was less. So (I decided) I am going to do this without (drugs). I told myself I wasn't going to second guess other riders' performances. That's part of the problem. Everybody doubts each other and that leads to everyone justifying this (doping). So from then on if I lose a race and somebody goes really fast I'm going to believe in them. Otherwise it doesn't help me. To line up at a race with everybody and suspecting them, in a way you've lost the race already.

PD: But doping always has to be in the back of your mind. It doesn't go away, does it?

LL: It is, but I really believe the majority of the peloton is clean. There's still riders that are still talked about and suspected. And I don't like to get into those conversations with the other riders because (if I do) how to do you go to a race and feel like you have a chance to win, with that in the back of your mind?

PD: Doping exists in baseball and football. Cycling is not alone.

LL: The testing has to be there. In baseball, years ago there was no testing. There weren't even rules. And with human nature that's probably going to create an environment. That's what happens when people enforcing the rules and making the rules aren't doing a good enough job.

PD: There's an old line in baseball: If you're not cheating, you're not trying.

LL: That brings up a good point. I was just in Atlanta Sunday at a symposium with some of the top scientists in anti-doping from across the world. They wanted to hear my personal experiences and opinions on how to improve the testing. Create a clean sport. One of the questions was: We hear a lot from people who say we should legalize all kinds of doping and be a free-for-all. If that had been done that at any point from when I was 13 years old to now it would have been an easy decision to stop. Because that just scares the hell out of me. I don't want to be part of the sport that is a free-for-all. I would have left the sport. No question. That's not worth it. For sure there would be individuals out there for whatever reason, probably mostly because they didn't know better, they would go to the brink of death.

PD: One of the things that stood out in your affidavit was Lance's (Armstrong) cryptic message to Odessa (Gunn, wife). Are you fearful of retribution from this guy?

LL: Yes.

PD: How? Which way?

LL: Both Odessa and I felt those messages were threatening. When you hear what Tyler (Hamilton) had to say about his run-in with him (Armstrong) in Colorado, and there were a few other people like Betsy Andreu, and others who claim he told them he was going to make their life a living hell, when you put it all together you can't help to be worried about all that. He knows a lot of people and has a lot of connections.

PD: In that regard, have you increased electronic security around your house? Do you have a bodyguard?

LL: He's sitting right there (laughs while he points to friend Mike Kaeske). No, no, the answer is no. I'm not going to live my life in total fear.

Kaeske: I think the retaliation will be more subtle than physical.

LL: Yeah. Yeah.

PD: The feeling of being shunned in that sport?

LL: I think that for sure will be his goal.

PD: Can he pull that off considering there are 10 others riders and 26 people who testified, that he can launch an all-out campaign to hurt more than two dozen people? To make them suffer? Is he capable of going to that extreme??

LL: Well, he's willing to. I think yeah.

PD: That's obsessive beyond a reasonable definition of obsession.

LL: If you read Tyler's book and the Reasoned Decision it's pretty clear (Armstrong would seek revenge).

PD: When was the last time you spoke to him?

LL: October 2010.

PD: Was that after you were subpoenaed and testified?

LL: It was after I was subpoenaed and after I testified but before he found out.

PD: What was that conversation like?

LL: It was normal. I was at his event in Austin. I was on RadioShack at the time and he wanted me there. It was casual. Hey, how's it going? Nothing more than that.

PD: And then after he learned you had testified, what do you hear of his reaction to your testifying?

LL: I saw him again in December and he wouldn't even look at me. He wouldn't talk to me. I tried to talk to him and he would just ignore me. And that's when he sent his first (threatening) text to Odessa.

PD: If somebody were to do that to my wife, I would go to that person and confront him.

LL: I was advised not to talk to him. We knew what the problem was. I didn't want to make it worse.

Kaeske: Levi was a witness in an on-going federal investigation. It wouldn't have been appropriate for Levi to do anything.

PD: Not even to say, Lance, why did you send this to my wife?

LL: Just not to contact him at all. I was witness. I had testified and they were halfway through it (investigation).

PD: You didn't have to testify?

LL: I had a subpoena with a penalty of perjury hanging over my head if I lied.

PD: But what if you plead the Fifth Amendment and refused to testify?

Kaeske: If you get a grand jury subpoena or any other kind of subpoena that means you must appear. You can appeal and take the fifth. If then you are offered immunity from prosecution to whatever you might say, you no longer have the right to not say. So now if you don't answer the question, you can be held in contempt of court (and go to jail). You actually don't have a choice and that's what a lot of people don't understand. These riders didn't have a choice or not whether to answer the questions. It meant Levi could not refuse to testify. He was obligated to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. ..

LL: It's just like you see on television.

PD: And you didn't think about not testifying and going to jail?

LL: Over this? No.

Kaeske: One of the things I never really understood is Lance's reaction to all this is especially not understanding the position these guys were in. One, Levi always wanted to tell the truth but even more so there wasn't a choice. If a federal prosecutor shows up at your house with two armed agents and serves you with a subpoena your ability to make decisions is over. There's one decision: Answer truthfully every question they ask or go to jail. It's the only decision.

LL: Federal government takes lying under oath very seriously. That's the backbone of the justice system. If people lie, how would you ever accomplish anything?

PD: Lance's reaction to what has happened in the last week defies belief, that he's saying it's old news and disgruntled riders. Is he in denial or does he really believe there's nothing to worry about here?

LL: I think that anyone who knows him has always said he would never admit to any of this. It's a tragedy. This whole thing is an opera. You couldn't have written this yourself, you know.

PD: You rode with him an awful long time. Do you ever think this was going to happen, that would be a day the debt would be collected?

LL: Not before 2010, no. I think back to when I was 13 years old; I just wanted to race my bike in the Alps and the Tour de France. And to think I would ever have to go in front of a grand jury, it seems so far-fetched and surreal. In the end, all these tough choices and decisions I did and made and experiences I had will make me better and stronger for it.

PD: How important is for you at this point to talk to cyclists on their way up or are there now (to the elite level) to say stop it, it's not worth it.

L: I think last Wednesday was groundbreaking in the sport; it was groundbreaking for USADA and the anti-doping authorities. It sent an unquestioned message. No matter if you do it and stop doing it, some day you can get caught. No matter what you do you'll never be in the clear. It's important to let the young riders know there are consequences. It's important an environment is created that where they don't have to make those decisions like we did. Now the sport is in that place. How do we keep it in that good place?

PD: Are you available to talk to anyone at anytime about this?

LL: Yeah, I owe it to everyone who are fans of the sport, especially here in Sonoma County. I owe it to everyone here to be available to discuss it openly, to anyone on the street out, on a bike, or in the bike shop, in the schools, in a café, restaurant. Nobody should feel they aren't allowed to talk to me about it. I was in Maine this last weekend. I was at Patrick Dempsey's event, a charity event for his cancer foundation. At first everyone was friendly and normal and nobody was really talking about it. I thought maybe they just hadn't been following the news. Eventually the topic came up and they knew all about it. I think they were a little hesitant to talk to me about it. They shouldn't feel that way. At all.

PD: What's your legacy? How much would it please you to be remembered first for the change you helped direct in the sport?

LL: If this brings about positive and permanent change in the sport, which I believe it will, I would be proud to have that as part of my story. Part of anyone's story and anyone's life there are ups and downs good things and bad things. I think we've all made mistakes, and I made a big mistake. It doesn't mean I haven't done some good things that I am very proud of, like the bronze medal I won in Beijing clean. On the top of the list of all that is the GranFondo. It's possible for people to have made mistakes and yet done a lot of good in the world. We are just not labeled good and bad. We are all of it. The world is not black and white. It's very gray.

PD: What would one word would you pick to describe yourself?

Kaeske: Short.

LL: Dedicated. When I was faced with the decision to tell the truth I told the truth. That's important to note.

PD: When you were testifying, did you feel, just before you began, that you were crossing over to Rubicon and your life would never be the same? Did you swallow hard?

LL: Oh yeah, absolutely. Last Wednesday was one of those moments. I knew it was all coming out. I was unsure how the people I cared about and the community I cared would react about telling the truth. I knew it was for the better of myself and for the better of my sport. I was worried how people would react. Would they understand the situation I was in and would they understand the decision I was forced to make? Would they understand I made that decision and I chose the wrong way?

PD: And would they forgive you for it?

LL: And, yeah, would they forgive me for it? Obviously I am going to live with that for a long time.

PD: And as time passes from last Wednesday to another 1,000 Wednesdays, it'll get better.

LL: I'm pretty sure.

PD: You seem more relaxed, at peace.

LL: Depends in which environment you see someone in. If it's Tour de France, in the most competitive sport in the world, in the hardest race, we are very tough. We carry around a thick shell. But if it's in the middle of Sonoma County with friends and community that I love, I'm in my element. I'm relaxed.

PD: I saw a photo one time of the start in The Tour de France in the '20s. Six guys were lined up at the start line smoking cigarettes. Doctors believed back then smoking would increase lung capacity.

LL: Point is they were doing it for their performances.

PD; So give its history, can cycling ever be really clean? Am I being naïve to think it could be?

LL: A realistic hope is that an overwhelming majority is clean. That's how it is today. Of course there's always going to be people who try, 'Oh I can beat the system'. No, you can't. I think we have seen a few of those cases recently. After speaking to the scientists and anti-doping experts on Sunday, they were telling me some of their statistics: How many people they catch versus how many tests they do. How it's been over the years. You correlate that with my internal knowledge of the peloton and having your pulse on the chatter and who's suspected of doing what. And what you know first-hand and I think they are catching a very high percentage of the people going out and breaking the rules. It's a very high percentage.

PD: The story from the Atlanta symposium mentioned you had more interest in the anti-doping tests deterring users than catching them.

LL: The overall theme of the meeting was perceptual deterrence. The emphasis was on testing which is most important. But how can we make it seem like you're going to test positive if you try something? There was some great ideas thrown around like: Maybe they take twice as many samples as they have been taking but they still only test half of them? You have no idea which ones they are going to test for. That's a great idea.

PD: On the basis of that Atlanta meeting, were you solicited to speak to other groups?

LL: I had offers to forward a book, put an op (opinion) in a book. I met with Edwin Moses, who is on the IOC board now. We talked about meeting with the IOC and getting them involved and helping cycling. I would argue that the biggest thing I did was five years ago when I stopped using performance enhancing drugs. Of course that wasn't public and people didn't know about that. But that's the biggest thing I've done.

PD: In an article former rider Bobby Andreu said if he had come out and admitted it (doping), he's out of the sport.

LL: Throw me under the bus. And there's a lot of people in the sport who are still trying to paint last Wednesday like that (discredited witnesses). But it's obvious you can't ignore what came out Wednesday. You can't just bury your head in the sand.

PD: Some people have said the USADA report is so thorough and compelling, there's no doubt Lance Armstrong doped for years. Yet, some resist, which leads only to one conclusion: If you can't believe that report, you just don't want to know.

LL: Exactly. I couldn't say it any more clearly or better than that. They just don't want to hear it.

PD: Do you sleep better at night?

LL: Yeah, this is the beginning of a chapter that started Wednesday. This has been a long story for me but obviously new to everyone else. It's a new element for me to deal with. The wounds are fresh, I have to admit. From Wednesday. This is a very difficult process to go through. On a daily basis I keep in touch with the other riders like George (Hincapie) and Tom Danielson and Christian (Vande Velde). It's so good to have those guys because we understand what each other is going through. It is a support structure, and those guys are having a hard time as well.

PD: What's your future in cycling? I understand Quick Step, your team, has suspended you.

LL: I think it's over. Yeah. I think you'll find out when we leave the table here. I think it's going on right now. My phone keeps ringing.

PD: Do you think you still have a future in the sport?

LL: I hope I do. I don't want to stop like this. I still love racing my bike. I've proven I can compete clean. That's proven. You can't argue that. I want to keep going, but we'll see if I'm ostracized or not.

PD: Do you expect to hear from Lance?

LL: No. Directly? No.

PD: No more Christmas card exchanges?

LL: It was never that. I think it's been a little overstated that we were friends. We were just colleagues basically.

PD: When you would be in social situations with people not in the inner circle of cycling and the conversation turned to doping, what would you be thinking?

LL: It's that fear of not knowing how they would react. Would they understand knowing the truth? My message was: Let's focus on the positive. Talk about the positive part. It's getting better. The sport is better. Riders want a clean sport. Nobody wants to do these things. Which is all true. You just don't know how people would react.

PD: What percentage of the peloton was doping from 1999-2007?

LL: It was the majority. I'll say that much. It depends on the time of the year. At the Tour de France? It was the overwhelming majority. It definitely was above 50 percent. Today, it's pure speculation but I gotta think it's less than five percent. That's just my feeling. Maybe I'm being naïve.

PD: In the ideal scenario, a team in 2013 wants to show it runs a clean operation and believes you are clean and hires you to represent them.

LL: This would absolutely motivate me. I want to go out and prove the sport is in a better place and I'm competing clean and I still get results clean. Whoever I would ride for, I stood up told the truth. I have the obligation to do that.

PD: What do you say to people who say you came out only because the feds forced you to come out?

LL: I would have asked them the question: What good would that have done if I came forth by myself? If you look at the history of cyclists who have done that they just get thrown under the bus. Ostracized and get kicked out of the sport. It would not have helped to clean up the sport. People would have just labeled me a cheater, acting on my own.

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