By ANDREW DAMPF AP Sports Writer
TRIESTE, Italy(AP)—Lance Armstrong’s shout across the room came in handy.
“You’re talking to the winner of the Giro, you know that?” the seven-time Tour de France winner bellowed.
Talking to Levi Leipheimer for a half hour, it could easily have been forgotten that the Montana native has designs on winning the 100th-anniversary edition of the Italian classic.
“I’m bullish on his outlook and his opportunities here, so I like to poke him a little bit, because I think it’s good for him,” Armstrong said. “He wants to downplay it and sneak into the race, which is smart.”
Leipheimer was so guarded about his aspirations, he spent nearly an entire interview with The Associated Press downplaying his chances of victory.
“When I stack up against the Italian favorites, I don’t think I’m quite the favorite,” Leipheimer said. “There’s a lot of guys who are focused on the race and it’s their big objective. There’s a long list of guys ahead of me.
“The Tour (de France) is the biggest objective for myself and the team. If I’m in good shape and I find myself in the hunt in this race, I definitely won’t pass it up, but I’m not expecting much and not putting a lot of pressure on myself.”
Yet with Armstrong still regaining his form after three and a half years of retirement and surgery to repair a broken collarbone, Leipheimer is the Astana squad’s leader for the Giro.
The 35-year-old is one of the world’s leading time trialers and he is capable of staying with the other favorites in the mountains, the two key ingredients necessary to win a major tour.
Leipheimer finished third in the 2007 Tour de France and was second to teammate Alberto Contador in last year’s Spanish Vuelta. He’s won all three races he’s entered this year – the Tour of California, the Vuelta of Castilla and Leon and the minor Tour of Gila.
Leipheimer and Armstrong teamed well together to produce a third-place result for Astana in the team time trial that opened the Giro on Saturday.
Leipheimer stood 18th entering Monday’s third stage, 40 seconds behind overall leader Mark Cavendish.
He’ll likely be the favorite for the marathon-like individual time trial that could decide the Giro. Stage 12 on May 21 is a 37.6-mile, highly technical race against the clock along the coastal area known as Cinque Terre.
“It’s almost perfect for him,” said Armstrong, who tested the time trial course a couple months ago. “The downhill is a little tricky. He hasn’t seen it, so that might be a slight disadvantage, but it’s a lot of climbing and it’s suited to a powerful guy, which he is.
“And he has the team to help the rest of the time. He has to stay up in the first week, which I think he can do. From what we’ve seen all year he’s been strong in the hills.”
Last year, Leipheimer took the bronze medal in the time trial at the Beijing Olympics and won both time trials at the Vuelta. He also won the last time trial at the 2007 Tour de France.
At 5-foot-7, Leipheimer can get more compact over his time trial bike than most riders.
“He’s incredibly aero, which makes a huge difference,” Armstrong said. “He’s got the lowest drag levels they’ve ever seen in the wind tunnel, and he’s strong. He’s a complete rider, he has experience.”
While Armstrong is known for his marathon-like training sessions, Leipheimer jams more work into less time. Two days before the start of the Giro, Leipheimer returned to the team hotel a half hour before the rest of the squad finished training.
“He trains a lot of intensity. I don’t think he does a lot of long training,” Armstrong said. “It’s interesting – a lot of time trial intervals, a lot of real specific stuff.”
Leipheimer is attempting to become only the second American to win the Giro after Andy Hampsten accomplished the feat with a memorable ride over the snowy Gavia pass in 1988.
“I can remember reading Winning Magazine at 14 years old about Andy Hampsten’s legendary Giro,” Leipheimer said.