Levi Leipheimer’s “I’ve Never Suffered So Much as When…” Stories

12.8.2011 | 11:13 am

A Note From Fatty: Tomorrow, a limited edition FatCyclist.com winter t-shirt goes on sale at Twin Six. Check out the front:


Yes, the graphic looks like it’s a sweater, but rest assured: it’s a long-sleeve t-shirt.

And it is wonderful.

I’ll post the details (as well as images of the whole shirt) tomorrow at 7:00am (PT) / 10:00am (ET), but you should know this: There are 200 of these, total, split between men’s and women’s sizes. And when they’re gone, they’re gone.

Which means you should check back tomorrow (Friday) morning and order up your shirt right away, if you plan on getting one of these.

A Note About This Post: A while back, I told Levi Leipheimer about the “I’ve Never Suffered So Much” series I was doing here, and told him I thought my readers would be interested in whether pros suffer like the rest of us. Levi said he’d be happy to tell a couple of his suffering stories, so I called him while he was on the way to the airport one day and recorded what he had to say.

I’m leaving it in the form of a conversation, so you can get the feel of the flow of the chat. That way, I can include the tangents and asides, which I found as interesting as the stories themselves.

We talked for about twenty minutes, which makes for a long post, but it’s good stuff. And besides, you can always finish it over the weekend, right?

Fatty : I don’t know if you have seen any of the “I’ve Never Suffered” stories on my blog: people telling stories of the day they suffered the most on their bikes. Let’s hear yours.

Levi : It would be really hard for me to pick one day. My story would probably be all kinds of races, or even going back to when I was a teenager and first riding. When you’re a kid, you can really bonk hard. I can remember bonking so bad when I was a teenager. I’m more efficient now, and now I sort of bonk. But I remember back then, there would be a split second and then lights out, you know?

Fatty: How about a few stories, then? Let’s start with one from when you were a kid.

The High Altitude Cycling Classic

Levi : Okay. I remember the first time I did 100 miles, I think I was like 15 years old. I think it was called the High Altitude Cycling Classic. It always started and finished at the speed skating rink that had been used for World Cups and world championships. We would go over a couple passes and do like this big loop.

Fatty: How much climbing?

Levi : I can make a guess. It went over the continental divide twice, so I would say there must have been a good 6000 or 7000 feet of climbing.

The thing I remember is just hitting the wall so bad and so quickly that I could barely pick my legs up to let them fall down on the pedals, to even keep me moving forward. That happened more than once.

One time I remember doing a race, I think I was like 15 years old and I had upgraded to the Senior 2-3 Category in a race in Montana, and I was on the front with somebody I knew. I remember we were working together well, and then after like 50 miles — I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t bring enough food — I was totally bonked.

I will always remember this guy in front of me had a banana hanging out of his jersey pocket and I wanted so bad to just take it from him, but I didn’t. And then he took a bite of it and put it back in his pocket and it fell out on the road. I just remember that image of that banana falling out on the road, when I was needing it so bad.

I lost like 20 minutes and 5 miles, or something ridiculous like that.

Fatty : Like you almost came to a stop?

Levi : Yeah. But I did go and win that race a year later.

Fatty: What was the difference?

Levi : Well, I went from 15 to 16, which is, at that period in your life, a huge difference.

Fatty: So when you were 15 and bonked out, did you finish the race?

Levi : I did. After I bonked I just remember just getting passed, like for the last five miles of the race. Everybody passed me. I was going so slow.

2008 Giro

Fatty: Now let’s hear a little bit about one of the hardest stages you’ve ever ridden in a Grand Tour.

Levi: A couple Giro stages stand out, One is from 2008, the Friday before the race ended in Milan Sunday, or was it actually a couple of days together? It blends together in my head.

Fatty: Yeah, I know that feeling.

Levi: Anyway, The Giro is famous for kind of lying to you. They’ll tell you the stage is 230K but it’s really like 250K. So we went into the Dolomites after riding 60 or 70K in the flats.

As we’re heading for the mountain, it’s just black. I remember thinking it was like Apocalypse Now — we were going up the river into something really bad.

So we get in the mountains and it’s just freezing cold rain. We have like six passes to do, the stage is 20K longer than they said, and Alberto Contador has the jersey. We’re trying to help him as much as we can, but the race is just so hard that he was kind of on his own after a while.

I remember just suffering so bad. The first time we summited I was already on the limit. And we had like four or five climbs still to go.

So I’m in a group somewhere in the race and I need food so bad. I’m begging food from guys in my group, and from other team cars, and then and barely making it to the finish. And then you have to ride down the mountain in the rain back to your hotel or your bus.

You’ve got like 260 kilometers in that day and then the next day, everything is exactly the same thing: carbon copy.

You’re just basically doing this group ride because it turns so hard that you’re not really racing anymore. You’re just trying to finish.

Fatty: I’ve often wondered if pros ever get to the point where you’re just not even racing anymore; you’re just in survival mode.

Levi : Oh, absolutely. All the time. Once the race hits a certain week and blows up, it’s like you are where you are and you can’t change it. You can’t will yourself to go faster. It’s just, “get to the finish,” especially since I wasn’t riding really that great in that Giro. So for me it was all about survival.

Fatty : Tell me more about begging for food. That’s such a different image than what those of us who see the grand tours on TV see. To us, it looks like there’s a car for every rider.

Levi : Well, at that Giro, Alberto was leading the race, so there’s obviously a car in his group. And then there was another teammate or two ahead of me and so there was probably a car with those guys. But I was in group 20, let’s say. I’m on my own and I’ve run out of food. All I have is my rain jacket.

So there’s a car behind our group. I think it was a Katusha car. I remember going there and saying, “I need food,” and they gave me something that had less than 100 calories. It was a bar, sure, but it was nothing. I just gulped it down and I was like, “Can I have another couple?”

They looked at me like I was a pig, you know? We’re seven hours into the stage. And I was like, “Come on, I need more food than that.” I’ll always remember their reaction was like, “You want more food? What are you doing?”

Fatty : You big fatty.

Levi : Yeah, exactly.

Fatty: How many calories do you try to eat per hour or on big stages like that? I really have no idea.

Levi :    As much as your digestion can handle.

Fatty : And about how much is that for you?

Levi : If I’m eating correctly, if everything I eat that agrees with me, I think I could get down 300 calories an hour.

Fatty : What do you like those calories to be? What’s your food of choice during a stage race?

Levi :    It’s got to be a mixture of things so you don’t get tired of just one thing. Gels and bars, obviously. But bananas are good, or cake. Anyway, they call them cakes in Europe but they’re really pastries — stuff from the bakery. They are totally high-fat, but they digest well.

Of course if Allen were there we would have his rice cakes. Those are easily digestible and super good for you.

Fatty : The what cakes? I didn’t catch that.

Levi : You know Allen Lim? He has a recipe for rice cakes.

Fatty : Oh, OK. Hey, did you just plug his new book?

Levi : Yeah, you should definitely get his book. Odessa and I have it. She’s cooking all his stuff and it’s great.

2009 Giro

Fatty : So how about one more story?

Levi : OK, how about the 2009 Giro. The toughest day was in the Apennines. I had no idea what the Apennines were before I went there, or how big they were. These are mountains you never heard of in Italy, and they’re as big as the Dolomites.

It was the Queen Stage for the Giro. It was seven-plus hours, for the winner.

I was riding well — I was in fourth or fifth place. I had a lot of expectations. I was focused on keeping my position. And then I had a bad day. I could feel from the first bonk that I was suffering.

So there’s this gravel descent that’s like 10K long before the last climb — and these are big climbs, by the way — and I flat and I have to wait, get a wheel, chase back on the downhill. And I catch back on at the bottom of the last climb and my nerves are shot, my legs are shot.

Lance was there and he was going to try to take care of me for the last climb, and I get dropped immediately and just explode into a million pieces.

Carlos Sastre attacks from the bottom, and I’m just suffering and I remember Lance is waiting for me. He had to wait for me a couple times because I kept getting dropped, and there’s sweat coming down everywhere, and it’s super hot.

I’m pouring water all over myself, taking my glasses off and I remember seeing a photo later of my glasses sticking out of my helmet all crooked and I have this total face on that was just pure, you know, like I’m just whining, totally like a little baby.

I had to really push through that day and limit my losses. And that actually happens lots, but that’s one that sticks out for me because it was such a long drawn-out stage.

Fatty : Tell me what goes through your head when you’re having a bad day, when you’re just suffering like a dog out there?

Levi : It’s a constant battle with yourself. You know, I just want to give ups and say “Screw it. I’m not going to be fourth or fifth in this Giro, that’s it, I’m cracked.”

But you don’t ever let up. You just have to keep tricking yourself like, “Okay, one more kilometer. Just one more kilometer, one more switchback.” You just trick yourself and trick yourself until you’re at the finish line.

And because as much as you’re hurting then, if you give up, that sticks with you much longer than the 30 or 40 minutes that you have to sit there and suffer.

Fatty : Is there anything you do to bring yourself back, when you blow up like that, when you’re just really having a bad day?

Levi :    It’s part of training. Just like you train your muscles to go faster, train your heart to pump more blood, train your lungs to take in more air. You have to train your mind to not give up, just accept the suffering. That’s really all it is. There’s no trick. It hurts at the time, but it’s just temporary.

I think doing this kills brain cells, so it makes it easier the next time, right? The dumber you are, the less it hurts.

So I must be real stupid.


  1. Comment by Hautacam | 12.8.2011 | 11:35 am

    Pure gold! Thanks for sharing. But maybe the most telling line is the first one:

    “It would be really hard for me to pick one day.”

    From that (and the rest of the stories) I take it that professional bike racing IS suffering.

  2. Comment by davidh-marinca | 12.8.2011 | 11:37 am

    I would totally buy a Fatty sweater! Maybe you could branch out and get your neighbors a Sundance to produce it.

    Love the conversation with Levi. Love the image of Levi ‘bumming’ food. He probably never brings his wallet when he goes out for beers with the guys either. (he’s welcome to put me in a ‘headlock’ for that, I’ll bring a stool) I also suspect the riding and training doesn’t kill brain cells as much as hair follicles (at least that’s what I tell myself). I use you and Levi as testament to that theory.

  3. Comment by KM | 12.8.2011 | 11:37 am

    WOW! So that’s the trick to suffering, be stupid! I got that covered in spades. I should feel no pain next season. That’s a great interview. Makes me want to go do hill repeats….maybe.

  4. Comment by Dave | 12.8.2011 | 11:38 am

    Wow! That was an awesome insight. I loved hearing the “tricking yourself” part, because I do that all the time. I think, “If you can get to that lightpole you can walk the rest of the way.” The I get there and I call myself names for thinking of getting off and think, “You made it this far just finish.”

    Thanks Fatty for such an awesome interview!

  5. Comment by Liz | 12.8.2011 | 11:52 am

    Chapeau Levi and Fatty! Thanks very much.

  6. Comment by Micha | 12.8.2011 | 11:53 am

    This might be the best post that I have read about pro cycling. Kudos Fatty and thanks Levi for the insight.

  7. Comment by Pete | 12.8.2011 | 12:02 pm

    My heartfelt thanks to Levi (and Fatty, of course) for providing some greater insight into the train and pain cycle of pro cycling. All the pros make it look so easy (while watching from the comfort of my couch) that you sometimes forget just how grueling it can be. Best wishes to all for a safe and suffer-free holiday season!

  8. Comment by Rob M | 12.8.2011 | 12:08 pm

    Great interview, Fatty.

    Thanks Levi for the insight into pro cycling. All the best to you for the new season and your new team.

  9. Comment by The Flyin' Ute | 12.8.2011 | 12:32 pm

    Fun insights. Bonking is harder to do once you get smarter in avoiding it, but when it hits now….it is miserable.

    Glad to hear the pros deal with the same thing.

    It makes me believe that they are not all doping.

  10. Comment by Haven-KT | 12.8.2011 | 12:56 pm

    Great post; pro bike racing always looks so different on TV than what it must really be like. Thanks to Levi for the stories!

  11. Comment by Haven-KT | 12.8.2011 | 12:57 pm

    Oh, and as a knitter: it would be so easy to turn that picture into a chart… you can see the individual “stitches” so well! Hm…. as if I don’t already have enough projects, but this one would be pretty fun to try…

  12. Comment by Mark W | 12.8.2011 | 1:25 pm

    Thanks fatty for a great post!

  13. Comment by davidh-marinca | 12.8.2011 | 1:28 pm


    Knit away Haven, knit away. Think what an awesome ‘prize’ this would be for a ‘Fatty’ contest. I would definitely donate!!, and I’m sure Fatty would probably get you a bike for a cool(warm) sweater.

  14. Comment by Heidi | 12.8.2011 | 1:30 pm

    Haven-KT, as a yarn dyer, I was thinking the same thing!

  15. Comment by Sara | 12.8.2011 | 1:57 pm

    …yeah, so I was thinking about a blog post one day and decided to call Levi… :o

    Fatty, you do have a super-power!

    Thanks, Levi, for putting up with him and thereby letting us live vicariously. :)

  16. Comment by Jeff Bike | 12.8.2011 | 2:13 pm

    Thanks for the good post both Levi and Fatty.

    “Oh man I must be smart, cuz I’s must have o’ lot of them brain cells, cuz sufferin hurts soooo much.”

  17. Comment by roan | 12.8.2011 | 2:37 pm

    Levi’s last sentence just about sums it up for me. Nothing hurts now ! But I think I started with a few less, too.

    Fatty, there’s a great tip in levi’s tale…you should come up with rain jackets that one could eat. Make mine beef, call it RawHide.

  18. Comment by leroy | 12.8.2011 | 3:01 pm

    Wonderful interview!

    Thanks to both of you!

    (FC — you sure you’re not angling for BSNYC’s column at Bicycling?)

  19. Comment by Phil | 12.8.2011 | 3:38 pm

    That last line should be the quote of the day.

  20. Comment by ScottR | 12.8.2011 | 3:54 pm

    Awesome post.

  21. Comment by rich | 12.8.2011 | 4:13 pm

    awesome post – thanks Fatty for sharing and Thanks Levi for the insight….
    The last line should be on a poster….

  22. Comment by Carl | 12.8.2011 | 4:24 pm

    Thanks for the insight. I have a big event this weekend in Auckland, New Zealand. I will for sure have to “just accept the suffering”. A timely post.

  23. Comment by Dave T | 12.8.2011 | 4:29 pm

    Wow what great stories of suffering on the bike. I like the part about tricking yourself with the “just one more kilometer or switch back” I also employ this trick. Thank you for sharing Levi and great questions Fatty.

  24. Comment by rokrider | 12.8.2011 | 4:45 pm

    “The dumber you are, the less it hurts.”
    Well, I guess I must be a lot smarter than I thought, cuz it sure hurts a LOT!

  25. Comment by Bodhi | 12.8.2011 | 4:56 pm

    Love the blog, incredible post. I’ve donated to multiple causes for cancer warriors and am currently enjoying Comedian Mastermind.

    That being said, that is likely the ugliest t-shirt design I’ve ever seen. I’m so sorry. It’s Clark Griswold-esque, my friends…

  26. Comment by daddyo | 12.8.2011 | 6:22 pm

    sounds like Ranger school. sometimes the anticipation of the misery is as bad as the suffering. it’s mind over matter though: if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter. i tell myself this over and over, but know it’s not true. it actually hurts as much as i think it does. thank goodness it’s so difficult to recall pain in vivid detail. it’d probably a life saving adaptation.

  27. Comment by AngieG | 12.8.2011 | 7:01 pm

    Great Post Fatty and Levi. As others have said, Levi is so strong on the bike that climbing the Alps looks so easy.

    Thanks for sharing the very human side of pro cycling.

  28. Comment by Carl | 12.8.2011 | 8:22 pm

    I’m thinking since you have exposed how dangerous Levi can be that he will not have any problems bumming food from people from now on.

  29. Comment by davidh-marinca | 12.8.2011 | 11:34 pm

    “…sounds like Ranger school.” Now there’s a challenge we should get both Fatty and Levi into. Got any connections? Can you imagine the blog post??

  30. Comment by skippy | 12.9.2011 | 2:14 am

    Levi will tell you that i always have a long sleeve jacket wrapped around my waist when i ride , even at the TDF training when i last rode alongside him . Regardless of the weather or length of ride there are at least 4 mueli or power bars in the middle back pocket . Some of them are there for months but who knows when the light starts to fade or you pickup the OP to ride out of your time limits with some ” Personalities “!

    Being prepared and carrying the extra weight as a ” shamateur “may slow you if you think that way but does make the diff when you feel in need of energy .

    Bonked on the Giro in the early years but ” El Diablo” was there with a Power bar gel for me as related in one of my posts !

  31. Comment by Penina | 12.9.2011 | 4:01 am

    I so saved that chart in my knitting files. Maybe ONE DAY…

  32. Comment by FAQinc | 12.9.2011 | 6:25 am

    As he ussually has you in a headlock, did he try maybe some form of phonelock?

    Good insight into a part of a pros life they have to mask during racing :)

  33. Comment by Mark (in Ottawa) | 12.9.2011 | 7:23 am

    Thanks so much for sharing this – it’s really interesting to see the insight from the pro peleton, and it’s also really reassuring to know that even pros find the climbs hard! Quick question, is there any team that is particularly bad about sharing food/resources with other team’s riders? Any teams out there that are particularly good about sharing? How do you pay them back when they do share?

    Thanks so much for putting this together!

    Mark (in Ottawa, Canada)

  34. Comment by Janet B | 12.9.2011 | 9:20 am

    Nice to know mere mortals aren’t the only ones bonking.

  35. Comment by VA Biker | 12.9.2011 | 11:45 am

    Stating the obvious (as usual for me): this is a cool post! Thanks for sharing.

    Did you manually transcribe that whole thing, or was automation used?

  36. Comment by Aaron | 12.10.2011 | 2:22 pm

    Awesome post.

  37. Comment by Jacob | 12.14.2011 | 7:50 am

    You should have asked if it’s annoying to ride with Chris Horner. I’ve seen Horner and Leipheimer ride a lot in the past year and I’m convinced that Horner’s oh-my-god-i’m-dying-from-exertion face is a huge grin. I know he has to be hurting like the other riders, but I think it’d be annoying to be riding next to the guy, feeling like I can’t push any harder and knowing I’m making ugly faces and look over at him looking like the Joker.

    Of course, I’m assuming the guy is suffering like the rest because I’m assuming he would just win every single stage if he really had enough left in the tank to smile like that at all times. Maybe he’s really just a huge jerk who likes to hang back with other riders just to taunt them with his beatific facial expression.

    Great interview though. You did a great job asking questions I wouldn’t normally read in the cycling news.

  38. Comment by The Bike Nazi | 12.14.2011 | 9:01 am

    It’s good to know the pros suffer as much as, if not more than we all do!

  39. Comment by Steve Wilson | 12.16.2011 | 1:48 am

    “And because as much as you’re hurting then, if you give up, that sticks with you much longer than the 30 or 40 minutes that you have to sit there and suffer.”

    Thats what its all about. Dont ever give up. Dont ever give in. Levi is a solid guy. Fatty great interview too.



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