CLOVIS, CALIF. — Mark Cavendish calls himself "the fastest rider on earth." He's also fearless and focused on the one thing a cycling sprinter cares about most: the finish line.
With that line in his sights Wednesday, Cavendish, the 23-year-old from the Isle of Man who races for Columbia-Highroad and who won four sprint finish stages at the 2008 Tour de France, burst through the final 500 meters of Stage 4 of the Amgen Tour of California for his first win here.
While Cavendish raised his arms in victory, it took a moment of clarification from the camera to confirm he had, indeed, stuck his wheel just ahead of Quick Step star Tom Boonen of Belgium. J.J. Haedo finished third. Cavendish's winning time was 4 hours 42.38 seconds.
The overall standings didn't change with Santa Rosa's Levi Leipheimer of Astana holding a 24-second lead over Australian Michael Rogers of Columbia-Highroad; 28 seconds over David Zabriskie of Garmin-Slipstream; and 30 seconds over his Astana teammate Lance Armstrong. Astana has five riders in the overall top 10, a positive sign for the continued leadership of Leipheimer.
Armstrong also got good news. His stolen time trial bike was returned to Sacramento police.
Wednesday's stage, which was missing the wind and rain that had plagued the race, took the peloton into the Sierra Mountains, high enough to find snow and dramatic enough to cause Leipheimer to pause and play tourist.
"The scenery was awesome," the two-time defending champion said. "I definitely took the chance to slow down and look around a couple of times. I was telling guys, 'Look, over there, look, over here. It was that beautiful. And there were a ton of people out there in the snow."
The 115.4-mile stage from Merced to Clovis also took some big names away. Kim Kirchen of Columbia and a Tour de France yellow jersey holder last year, caught his jacket in his spokes and caused a crash that also took out three-time world road race champion Oscar Freire.
Freire broke two ribs and Kirchen broke his collarbone. On a solo crash, last year's King of the Mountains winner Scott Nydam of BMC suffered a broken clavicle.
Almost as disappointed as the injured racers was 2004 Olympic gold medalist Tyler Hamilton.
Since winning in Athens, Hamilton has spent much of the time fighting a losing battle over a failed doping test. He is now with the Rock Racing team and was at the front of a three-man breakaway for nearly three hours Wednesday.
But in the final two miles, the peloton caught up to Hamilton and his two breakaway brothers, Serge Pauwels of the Cervelo Test Team and Jason McCartney of Saxo Bank.
"I'm disappointed, really disappointed," Hamilton said.