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Cyclists to go it alone today in Amgen Tour of California

The time trial at Solvang could either cement Levi Leipheimer's lead or throw the race wide open. Mark Cavendish wins another stage Thursday.

February 20, 2009|Diane Pucin

SOLVANG, CALIF. — Cycling experts call the time trial "the race of truth."

It is the day when a cyclist has no other wheel in front of him to follow as incentive, no rider behind him to push him forward with whatever emotion -- fear or anger or just plain old competitiveness -- and no teammates beside him to say, "Keep up, we need you."

During a time trial, veteran George Hincapie of the Columbia-Highroad team said, "The ones who succeed, they embrace the pain. It's all you."

Today in Solvang, on a course that has sharp curves to entice a greedy rider into a fall, rolling hills that play havoc with the hamstrings and straightaways where a rider will want to just ride as fast as he can but be in danger of outracing his stamina, the Amgen Tour of California will have a 15-mile time trial that is expected to either cement the overall lead of Levi Leipheimer or throw the race wide open going into the final two stages.

Four of the best time trialists in the world stand in the top four places -- Leipheimer, Michael Rogers, David Zabriskie and Lance Armstrong -- and 30 seconds separate first from fourth.

Allan Piper, team director for Columbia-Highroad, said this course offers a little bit of everything. "Flat stretches for the sprinters, hills for the climbers, corners for the technicians," he said. "The winner will be fair. You can't hide from this course."

In today's time trial, riders go off one by one in reverse order of where they stand overall.

So the leaders go last, racing only against the course and the clock. Because there is no team help to corral a faster racer or help with a flat tire or protect a leader from the elements, the time trial is the stage in which significant seconds can be gained in the standings.

And the potential drama of this time trial wasn't lessened by the results of Thursday's Stage 5, at 134.5 miles the longest of the race.

For the second day in a row, Mark Cavendish of Columbia-Highroad outsprinted Quick Step's Tom Boonen for the win. Leipheimer retained his 24-second lead over Columbia-Highroad's Rogers with Zabriskie of Garmin-Slipstream third, 28 seconds out and Armstrong in fourth, 30 seconds behind his Astana teammate.

Looking ahead to the time trial, Leipheimer had a succinct prediction. "You can't have a bad day," he said.

This time trial course -- Mission Drive and 1st Street to Alisal Road, then Vibong Road to Alamo Pintado to Baseline to Refugio, to Roblar Avenue and back to Alamo Pintado to Steele Street and Ballard Canyon Road up a climb to Chalk Hill and back down into Solvang on Chalk Hill and Atterdag to Copenhagen -- offers tests of speed, strength and nerve, said Armstrong.

Armstrong is famous for his time trial ability and is looking forward to doing his first long time trial since coming out of retirement last month at the Tour Down Under.

"It's a good course," Armstrong said. "It will be a fair test. Whoever's in the best shape will win."

Astana director Johan Bruyneel said the Solvang course suits the small and compact Leipheimer.

"There's a rolling climb, a downhill at the end that makes it difficult for the guys with the big engines at the end," he said.

Hincapie said the danger of the Solvang course is in being lulled into forgetting about the hills and corners to come and going all out at the relatively straightforward beginning. "You can forget and go as fast as you can, then the hill comes and you don't have the steam," he said.

Most of the top riders here, including Garmin-Slipstream's Christian Vandevelde, who finished fifth at last year's Tour de France, say this course tests every aspect of cycling.

"There's enough straightaway to get up a good head of steam," Vandevelde said, "it's got enough technical areas, corners and stuff, it's got some uphill and downhill. You've got to use your physical strength and your mind."

Piper, the team director, said it takes a special psyche as well as a special body to make a good time trialist.

"It's the ability to pace yourself," he said. "Although we have speed and heart rate monitors and power weighting machines, ultimately you have to monitor yourself. You have to be able to prepare yourself mentally for something like this, prepare yourself for torture. You must ride at your maximum because if you're at less than your maximum, if you lose concentration, your heartbeat goes down five beats, you lose five seconds."

The first rider will leave the ramp at noon. By 3 p.m., there will be a winner of the "race of truth." And maybe a new leader of the Tour of California.

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diane.pucin@latimes.com

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