SAINT-QUENTIN, France -- In a sport ruled for so long by Lance Armstrong, fellow American Levi Leipheimer is hardly a household name. In the next two weeks of the Tour de France, he might become a little more familiar.
The consistently high-performing Butte, Mont., native has reason to fancy his chances of becoming Armstrong's heir: Of the 172 racers still left in cycling's showpiece race that lost top contenders to doping allegations, a crash, and illness, only four have ever finished above Leipheimer -- and one of those is now his teammate.
Leipheimer finished comfortably in the main pack in yesterday's fourth stage, won by Australian sprinter Robbie McEwen with a remarkable final burst of speed. Tom Boonen of Belgium kept the overall lead, proudly wearing the yellow jersey on his home turf.
Leipheimer, who is 27th overall, is the first to admit that it is still early in the three-week race. Nevertheless, as others have dropped out, his star has risen.
When asked, Leipheimer names three riders who placed above him in the three Tours he's finished: Spaniard Carlos Sastre of Team CSC, the Discovery Channel's Portuguese climber Jose Azevedo, and T-Mobile racer Andreas Kloeden.
But Leipheimer is forgetting a fourth: his Gerolsteiner teammate Georg Totschnig. The Austrian finished seventh at the 2004 Tour, two spots above Leipheimer, who was then racing for Rabobank.
For the moment, the squad says that both are team leaders and the decision on who is in the best position to ride for the Tour crown will be judged on Saturday's long time trial and their performances during the tough climbs of the Pyrenees and Alps.