Saturday, February 23, 2008

Tour of California sweeps through Solvang

Daily Sound Photo: Janelle Holcombe
Levi Leipheimer finished the 15-mile individual time trial course in 30 minutes, 46 seconds. It was his second straight win in Solvang on the hilly course that wraps through the Santa Ynez Valley.


The winner, the weather and the town were all the same yesterday as they were a year ago when the Amgen Tour of California hosted its critical individual time trial in Solvang.
And like last year, it was American cyclist Levi Leipheimer who dominated a 102-man field to retain the tour’s leader jersey and widen his overall lead with the backdrop of thousands of roaring fans who packed the Danish village’s streets for what event officials have dubbed the premier American cycling event.

“It was another great day for me here in Solvang,” said Leipheimer, who rides for team Astana. “I just gave it all I had here today.”
Leipheimer covered the 15-mile course in a blistering 30 minutes, 46 seconds, more than 30 seconds faster than British cycling champion David Millar, who finished the course in 31:15.
But perhaps more impressive was that Leipheimer’s effort put world time trial champion Fabian Cancellara, who entered the day trailing the American by just 13 seconds, all but out of contention for an overall victory.
Cancellara, who rides for team CSC, finished more than a minute behind Leipheimer in 31:51 and fell from second place to fourth place in the overall standings with a 1:18 gap separating him from the lead.
Leipheimer, who started last and danced on the pedals throughout the hilly course that rolls through the Santa Ynez Valley, credited Cancellara with an amazing performance two days ago on a climb into San Jose, and noted that the Swiss cyclist likely paid for that effort in Solvang.
“We’re not machines,” Leipheimer said. “You pay for that. I guess I’m just a little bit lucky.”
In a prepared statement that was read during a news conference, Cancellara echoed Leipheimer’s observations saying, “I did a very good stage to San Jose and I think I paid the price today.”
Millar and Slipstream-Chipotle teammate Christian Vandevelde both said they thought Cancellara would have a better showing, but weren’t surprised that he did not.
“Although he’s superman on quite a lot of days he can’t be on everyday,” Millar said of Cancellara.
Leipheimer set a blistering pace, passing the halfway point near Los Olivos in 16:20, 48 seconds faster than the mark sent by Cancellara moments earlier. After Cancellara crossed the finish line, it wasn’t more than 30 seconds until Leipheimer did the same despite starting two minutes later.
Leipheimer’s effort and the outcome was nearly identical to his appearance here in 2007, when he established his overall race lead, convincingly winning the time trial in 29:40. The course in 2007 was slightly shorter and less hilly than it was yesterday.
Leipheimer, a Santa Rosa native, said he trained all winter for the Tour of California and had every expectation to repeat in Solvang.
But it wasn’t easy.
“With every passing kilometer I was just yelling at myself,” he said. “I just kept telling myself to go to that place where I can hurt the most.”

As the cyclists rolled out onto Mission Drive in one and two-minute intervals, spectators stacked themselves three and four deep against barricades to get a quick glimpse of their favorite riders.
At the finish line area on Copenhagen Drive, a throng of fans waving boom sticks and ringing cow bells flooded the streets waiting for the last cyclists to finish. As Leipheimer entered the straight-away and approached the finish, the noise level rivaled that of any major American sporting event.
The first cyclist of the day, Bryce Mead posted a time of 37:09 and from there, it was whittled down rider by rider until Vandevelde posted a time of 31:31 seconds with seven riders remaining on the course.
Vandevelde’s time earned him a third-place finish. He also finished the day third in the overall standings.
Vandevelde said he began the day worried slightly about the way his body would react after Thursday’s 135-mile trek that forced more than a dozen riders to withdraw from the peloton, some of whom suffered from hypothermia.
Pat McQuade, president of the International Cycling Union, said Thursday’s stage, which finished in San Luis Obispo, was one of the top five worst days for cyclists he’s ever seen.
McQuade heaped praise upon the Tour of California, saying he has enjoyed seeing it grow and looks forward to watching it continue to do so.
“There’s no doubt the race is getting bigger and better,” McQuade said.
After the stage 5 time trial concluded, the politics of doping and a recent controversial decision by the Tour de France to ban team Astana from this year’s tour, was on full display.
As a result of the Tour de France decision, Leipheimer and defending tour champion Alberto Contador will likely not be able to compete in this year’s race.
Leipheimer wasn’t shy about his distaste for the tour’s decision and his feelings that he and his teammates should be able to compete.
“We’re the best team in the world,” he said. “In my opinion we need to be in the big races.”
When asked by reporters about a recent campaign unleashed by Astana and its supporters to allow the team to compete, Leipheimer made it clear it’s not an attack on tour officials, but an effort to let them know the importance of allowing Astana to participate.
“We worked our whole lives to get there,” Leipheimer, 34, said. “These are my best years right now. They’re taking away some of these opportunities that I’ve been working for my entire life.”
McQuade said he and the UCI also believe the decision by the tour unfairly singles one team out and should be withdrawn.
“It is a collective punishment against riders which is wrong,” McQuade said. “It was a decision made for something other than sporting reasons. The UCI will fight this decision right through to the Fourth of July.”
But as far as the Tour of California is concerned, Leipheimer seems right at home with the growing event.
“Bike racing isn’t just about your legs,” he told a cheering crowd while receiving his prize. “It takes a lot of inspiration. I just kept telling myself I’m going to do my best. I’m going to do my best for Solvang.”
Stage 6 of the tour begins at 11 a.m. today on Cabrillo Boulevard and will finish 105 miles later in Santa Clarita. The tour concludes on Sunday in Pasadena.

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