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CYCLING

Levi Leipheimer vaults into lead at Tour of California

A second-place finish in Stage 2 leaves him with the overall lead and earns him a strong endorsement from Lance Armstrong. Leipheimer is "the best guy in the race, hands down," Armstrong says.

February 17, 2009|Diane Pucin

SANTA CRUZ — Chaos all around him -- rain and hail and winds that knocked the bicycles sideways and even canceled a golf tournament a few miles down the road -- Levi Leipheimer rode as if he was in a glass jar, protected from the elements, safe from the slips and slides and crashes around him, focused only on what was coming.

Leipheimer crossed the finish line second Monday in Stage 2 of the 750-mile Amgen Tour of California, just behind 22-year-old Tom Peterson from North Bend, Wash., and the Garmin-Slipstream team, who won the 115.9-mile stage in 5 hours 6.20 minutes.

The 35-year-old Leipheimer, the two-time defending champion, took the overall lead with a strong performance up the race's biggest climb so far. Leipheimer, the Olympic bronze medalist in the time trial, has a 24-second lead over Columbia-Highroad's Michael Rogers of Australia. David Zabriskie of Salt Lake City and Garmin-Slipstream is third overall and four of Leipheimer's Astana teammates, including Lance Armstrong (fourth overall, 30 seconds behind), are in the top 10.

Riding in Leipheimer's support was Armstrong, who had a collision with a race photographer's motorcycle that left Armstrong with a sore hip that didn't keep him from escorting Leipheimer to the base of the climb or from giving his opinion of who will be the winner Sunday when the tour ends in Escondido.

"Levi proved he's the best guy in the race, hands down," Armstrong said.

Leipheimer suggested that anyone who wanted to simulate Monday's race conditions "turn your shower on as cold as it can get and stand there for five hours. That's what it's like."

The peloton began racing in Sausalito at 8:30 a.m. and crossed the Golden Gate Bridge in a wind-blown line of sogginess.

Peterson, who often trains in similar weather, said the problem with racing in the cold is that you can't wrap up in layers.

"You can't bundle up," he said. "If you're training you can put on tights and stuff and be really warm."

To protect against the sideways rain, racers wore jackets and ankle warmers as if the weather gods were in a particularly nasty mood -- only to have the sun peep out at the bottom of the final climb up Bonny Dune Road.

It was then that Armstrong called for an Astana team car to pull alongside so he could shed the jacket and ankle warmers, undressing while he was riding.

Armstrong wasn't the only unlucky rider to hit the pavement. At least a dozen others were involved in crashes. One, Andy Jacques-Maynes of Watsonville, Calif., was taken off the course in an ambulance. His brother Ben, a teammate on the Bissell team, knew his brother had slid under a car when he fell.

"That's just the conditions we work in," Ben said. "But Andy's going to be fine."

The final climb came with about 17 miles left in the stage and Leipheimer had a purpose in mind. He had come into the stage 1:02 behind Rock Racing's Francisco Mancebo. Leipheimer just stood up in the saddle, slammed onto the pedals and took off.

Leipheimer passed a group that included Ben Jacques-Maynes, who said it was like being passed by a motorcycle.

"A little motorcycle," Jacques-Maynes said. Leipheimer is 5 feet 7 and 132 pounds, and looks small even among the pint-sized cyclists.

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diane.pucin@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Standings

1. Levi Leipheimer, U.S., 9 hours, 23 minutes, 2 seconds

2. Michael Rogers, Australia, 24 seconds behind

3. David Zabriskie, U.S., 28 seconds behind

4. Lance Armstrong, U.S., 30 seconds behind

5. Christopher Horner, U.S., 34 seconds behind

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