Season 01 : Episode 01
Levi Leipheimer is a former professional road racing cyclist, outdoor sports enthusiast, and has great insight on the complicated life of a retired athlete. Levi sits down with Kristin and Erin to talk about his experience retiring from the professional circuit, the role cycling still plays in his life and accepting the fact that he will always love the thrill of sport. They discuss the difficult conditions under which Levi retired from cycling, and what he has done since then to give back to the sport he loves.
Levi’s Gran Fondo: https://www.levisgranfondo.com/
Truckee Dirt Fondo: https://www.truckeedirtfondo.com/
King’s Ridge Foundation: https://www.kingridgefoundation.org/
The Levi Effect: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/levieffect
Coffey Strong: https://coffeystrong.com/
Bike Monkey: https://www.bikemonkey.net/
[1:05] Intro: Levi Leipheimer is a former professional road racing cyclist. He is a 2-time National Champion, Olympic Bronze medalist and one of the best stage racing cyclists the US has ever known. Levi raced on the US Postal Team with Lance Armstrong and was one of the first to come forward during the huge 2012 USADA investigation and tell the truth about his own use of performance-enhancing drugs while competing. He has turned his less than ideal retirement from professional cycling into championing the movement for better drug testing in sport in hopes that no one has to make the tough decisions he did in order to compete.
[1:45] Erin’s connection to Levi through mutual friend Kelly Starrett.
[2:35] Levi on why this is a brave subject to tackle, hopes his story opens people's’ perspective on the struggle on the retired professional athlete. Levi used to work with Dr. Allen Lim, founder of Skratch Labs, maker of recovery drinks and energy bars. He met Kelly Starrett through Dr. Lim. Tells the story of when Kelly raced the most difficult route in Levi’s Gran Fondo, a race that started in 2009, for all walks of life, all ages, all sizes, all abilities. Levi specifically designed the race so that people could hang their hat on accomplishing the tough route.
[4:56] How Levi uses his experience as a professional athlete in his next endeavors. Levi says he has spent his entire life chasing perfection in cycling, and knows the effort it takes to be good, and when you are that good it’s an amazing experience. So, he’s not that interested in doing sports that aren’t exciting and that he can become good at leveraging his physical attributes that he has. He is now trying Nordic skiing.
[6:48] Levi on the difficulty of retiring. Spending so many years working to become so good at something, and it’s hard to give that up. He still loves to go out and ride his bike fast, not slowly. We should never stop trying to get better, no matter our age, that trying to improve is what it’s all about.
[7:45] Levi talks about his first sport: alpine skiing.
[8:29] Erin talks about the “work sports” and the “extreme sports”, and asks Levi if he is a hybrid. Levi thinks it’s necessary to embrace both types, and thinks you might as well try to enjoy both.
[9:45] The unusual transition from skiing to cycling for Levi. Cycling not big in Butte, Montana, where Levi grew up. Levi started biking because his older brother and his friends rode bikes, and Levi was allowed to tag along as long as he could keep up.
[10:54] Levi’s bad ski accident in Jackson Hole, Wyoming when he was 17. Landed on his back and got a compression fracture of his fifth thoracic vertebrae. Not a big deal looking back on it, especially not compared to his more recent injuries. He started cycling as summer training for skiing and realized quickly that he was way better at cycling than skiing.
[12:20] When Levi decided to go pro and aim for competing at the Tour de France. He wore out a VHS tape of the Tour de France when he was 13, so it was never a conscious thought that he was going for going pro and racing the Tour, but it was clear that it was what he wanted.
[13:15] At 18, Levi took some time off the University of Utah and went to Europe to race his bike for what was supposed to be just a year. He took a lot of what he learned in competitive ski racing and training and applying himself and applied it to cycling.
[13:55] Levi didn’t put pressure on himself that he had to become a professional or race in the Tour de France or go to the Olympics, but he told himself he would do everything he can and be patient, which is funny because he’s not that patient. He kept taking steps towards his goal, and making progress. He had determination and didn’t give up.
[15:23] Erin asks Levi if he ever had a plan B? Levi said no. There’s nothing else he wanted to. “It’s not a little scary, it’s scary.” To truly to be as happy as he knew he could be as a professional cyclist, it would be hard to step back and go down that road. The farther he got into his career, and every step he took, it got harder and harder and there was no turning back. Which was a good thing and a bad thing, because he got into a sport that had questionable things going on, and was faced with decisions, like all the other riders, things that he didn’t expect to have to face when he was thirteen, and those decisions were hard to make. But he didn’t want to turn around and go home. He felt like it was unavoidable, it was obvious what was going on, and if he wanted to get to where he wanted to be, it became one of those things where he had to decide if he was going to take performance enhancing drugs, and see how long he would make it, which wouldn’t be that far or at a high level, and have to go home and do something he didn’t want to be dong.
[17:45] Levi has had two transitions in his career: first, when he decided to stop taking performance enhancing drugs and compete clean, and another when he retired. Levi says the first one was exciting and a great thing, because the WADA Biological Passport got biology to “catch up”. He lived through the implementation of the Biological Passport, which is like a fingerprint for each individual athlete, and limits of the specific biomarkers, blood, hormones, and create a narrow window that the individual operates in, which is what is considered normal fluctuations for a person.
[19:50] Erin and Kristin talk about Levi’s documentary, The Levi Effect. They were left with the impression that Levi transitioned really well. He faced impossible situations multiple times, like his house burning down, terrible injuries, the doping scandal, and has turned all of those situations into productive recoveries, with a lot of resilience. Levi thinks we’re all stronger than we think we are, and if we were faced with these situations that we would all do what he did if they were as lucky as he was in life with opportunities like he did.
[22:10] Levi on being an athlete teaching you a lot about overcoming adversity- taking two steps forward, one step back. It’s never a steady progression, so you have to learn to be emotionally reserved, because it would be draining to be on a rollercoaster every time there’s an up and a down and be taken on that ride. Perspective is key to keep your eye on the prize.
[22:45] Levi said in an interview that after the performance enhancing drugs scandal and cooperating with the USADA investigation, that “he had no choice but to be a better person”. He said he either had to find something that excited me, or… then he stopped and said, “well, there is no or.” Levi goes into a bit more detail about how most view the issue of performance enhancing drug use as black and white, and that it’s more of a gray issue. There were 6 or 7 other American athletes who went through the USADA investigation situation with him, and they are the only ones who really understand like he does. And he thinks people don’t really want to hear what they have to say. They invested so much time as juniors, as amateurs, racing in Europe, turning pro, and they realize that the performance enhancing drugs are part of a line in the sand. You justify why you’re going to cross that line.
[25:30] Levi creating something good out of the tough situations he’s been in, like with at-risk youths. He founded the King Ridge Foundation and Levi’s Gran Fondo. He says it was never lost on him how many people helped him throughout his career, but it always stuck with him that he felt like he was always taking from people. That he needs to get stronger, needs to rest, and unfortunately that’s what it takes to be at that level. He saw the King Ridge Foundation and Levi’s Gran Fondo as a way to pay it forward. That he could leverage his little bit of notoriety to do something good- to motivate people, to push themselves, to give them a goal to work towards. He could feel good about having taken from those people.
[27:35] Erin felt an immense sense of guilt after her professional career, and afterwards felt like it was her job to pay everybody back. But what she learned was that people like to help others out.
[28:45] Levi talks about how the sport of cycling has broadened and is different since he retired. Not better or worse, but that it shifted from being structured and incredibly goal-oriented, which is not something he will ever be able to do again. He’ll never have anything as grand as the Tour de France to chase again, which was an experience he will never forget and not take for granted because he will never get it again. Now, cycling is more adventurous and social for him, he can test the waters. The Gran Fondo is kind of a pioneering thing in the United States, and he would like to continue to look in that direction and see what cycling can be for all of us in ten or twenty years.
[30:20] One of the special things about cycling is that it is accessible to so many different people, versus rowing, which requires so much more equipment and facilities. Biking is a fundamental thing for so many people. Levi loves it because you actually get to go somewhere, and humans on bikes are the most efficient animals. You can burn so many calories, and you get to sit down and do it for hours and hours, whereas when you Nordic ski you don’t get any rest or recovery time. He likes that you can ride side by side. Kristin thinks it is hilarious that it’s a “selling point” that Levi thinks cycling is a great sport because of the fact that you can ride for hours on end.
[32:36] Levi and Erin discuss different ways they do workouts as retired athletes. Levi likes Zwift, Erin likes Sufferfest.
[33:08] Levi is addicted to exercise, he needs to exercise everyday. He chooses different Zwift workouts and likes to just go out for a “virtual adventure”.
[34:30] Erin talks about and she and Levi both share the addiction to training. Levi was stuck on the couch a couple of years ago after he broke his leg and ankle, and went stir crazy. Erin wonders if he feels trapped from the need to train. He says yes: on days when he hasn’t exercised yet, he has to talk himself down, but says it is extremely hard for him to take a day off. He takes about one day a month off. He says it’s nice to take a day off because the next day he will feel great.
[36:00] Erin talks about using training as therapy. When she retired she was training two, sometimes three times a day for the following two to three years, thinking that was normal, until she talked to someone and they said, “maybe you’re using this as your armor”, which blew her eyes wide open and realized she probably was. She says that others are impressed by the fact that athletes work so hard to workout, but the difference is, it’s harder for many athletes to stop working so hard.
[38:15] Levi says the pain you put yourself through training is not so bad. Erin agrees, and says that’s what so many athletes enjoy. Levi says there is no better feeling than after a hard workout, and you get to eat, and you get to be in a state of relaxation, and it feels great.
[39:18] Discussion about Levi’s decision to retire. Levi discusses how it was early because of the USADA investigation. He was riding for a Belgian team at the team, and they wanted to hire another rider because Levi had the doping investigation going on. He had been wanting to maybe ride one more year, but he stopped a little early, which made it hard. Discusses that gray area again, and says he can be at peace with it, for the most part. He says he did the best he could, and says it was one of the hardest things he faced- it was a humiliating experience- and you have to look at it as an asset. How many people get to go through that, learn from that, he sees it as a strength.
[41:30] Kristin mentions that one of the only things she could find about him in the last few years is a Bingo game he hosted a few years ago for the Coffey Park, an area in Santa Rosa, where a wildfire jumped a six lane freeway and made its way into a community, who called themselves Coffey Strong, who are a model for anyone who has had to go through a disaster.
[43:08] Levi once said “I’m retiring into the rest of my life”, and Kristin and Erin wanted to know what he meant by that. Levi went on record for the first time in 2013 with the fact that he was retiring. He gave himself a year afterwards to decompress, but it turned into much more time than that. He says he may never lose the instinct to do a workout every day. He still wants to be fit, he still wants to enjoy going out on his bike. It takes consistency, determination and a strong work ethic, no matter the setbacks that you face.
[45:00] Kristin talks about how even after her retirement, which was after collegiate athletics, she hasn’t felt like she has stopped chasing the thrill of competition. In the years since she stopped competing she has felt low, disappointed, and wonders if he has too. Levi talks about how cycling is a broader experience for him now, and that riding his bike helps. It helps him cope and deal with real life. He is still competitive with himself on his bike, but he knows how to turn it off.
[47:05] Levi talks about being on the ski chair lifts with people, and steering the conversation away from the topic of himself. Eventually the topic of who he is and has done comes up, and it’s refreshing for him when people don’t know who he is, so they don’t have any preconceived notions of who he is, who they think he is. He can see how very famous people become anti-social.
[49:00] Kristin mentions some of Levi’s former teammates, like George Hincapie and others who seem like they are progressing and moving forward really well. Levi suggests that the external success is not necessarily a sign of anything; that they are all feeling the same way he does. It’s hard to replace what they did when they were racing. Levi talks about how Levi’s Gran Fondo is expanding and turning into an event that is inclusive of whole families, so everyone can participate in something.
[50:22] Kristin asks Levi if he has seen any strategies or tactics that have worked well for his former teammates. He thinks the more social, outgoing types seem to be having more opportunities in their retirement, just because they’re connecting with more people. There’s one person who is a complete anomaly, and puts them all to shame in retirement- Eric Heiden- he set a record for the number of gold medals in a winter Olympics, he was a professional cyclist, and now he is an orthopedic surgeon. Levi tells himself maybe he needs to try new things so that maybe he will find new things he may like, maybe like accounting. Something in a completely new direction.
[52:54] What would Levi’s advice to the next generation of elite or collegiate athletes? Levi says it’s tough, because if you’re going to succeed at your sport, you have to give everything to your sport. You can’t leave any options or excuses, which sets you up for never looking around for your options. That’s what it takes. Then, at least you know when it’s done there are other challenges waiting for you. You should at least know that it’s going to be hard, at the very least. Erin says that if someone who had framed the transition that way, it would have been a little easier on her. She asks herself, if she knew then what she knows now about how hard the transition is, would she do it again. She asks Levi, would you do it again? Without missing a beat, Levi says “absolutely. No question. I got to experience something that is extremely rare and that is never going to be lost on me. I’m extremely fortunate.” He said that if you become an athlete, you acquire so many skills that will be helpful later on.
[55:30] Levi says his life has changed a lot in the six years since retirement, and says he’s trying to simplify and clear his plate. He likes to focus on his sports, Nordic ski and cycling.
[56:30] Levi talks about other events run by his partners in Levi’s Gran Fondo, and they have an event planned coming up, the Sagan Gravel Fondo in Truckee, and there’s a lot of snow on the ground (like 15 feet), so they are coming up with alternate routes or a new date. It’s an awesome event. Says to look up mountain biking events with Bike Monkey.
[57:50] Erin says Levi has inspired her to start giving back to her sport more. That when you help our your sport, what you leave behind is moving the needle of your sport. Erin doesn’t want the best thing that she ever did was what she did in her sport. Levi counters with, “but is that so bad? It’s better than 99.99% of others.”
[58:00] Levi says he has done the best with what was thrown his way. He says you have to break up insurmountable obstacles by breaking them up into little pieces and doing them one at a time. One little piece at a time.
[1:00:00] Kristin says this is her way of giving back, because she doesn’t know how else to help yet and Levi agrees.