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CYCLING

Levi Leipheimer still leading Tour of California

Lance Armstrong, in sixth place with one stage to go, is committed to getting his teammate a victory.

February 22, 2009|Diane Pucin

Saturday was an "inside cycling" kind of day at the Amgen Tour of California, a combination of testing, aggressive moves, breakaways, crashes and general probing to see if the powerful Astana team could be rattled.

Christian Vandevelde of Garmin-Slipstream earned the honor of being most courageous rider on the 88.9-mile Stage 7 between Santa Clarita and Pasadena by charging up a hill at Mill Creek and trying to crack the Astana team that is protecting overall leader Levi Leipheimer. Vandevelde's efforts affected the overall standings not at all.

With one stage to go, a 96.8-mile stretch from Rancho Bernardo to Escondido today, a ride that will include a climb up Palomar Mountain and reach the highest point yet in the four years of the race, Leipheimer kept his 36-second lead over Dave Zabriskie of Garmin-Slipstream with Michael Rogers of Columbia-Highroad in third place, 46 seconds back.

Lance Armstrong, in his second comeback race of the year, remains in sixth place, 1:46 back and committed to his role as helper in the cause of getting Leipheimer a third straight Tour of California title.

Italy's Rinaldo Nocentini of Ag2R La Mondiale outsprinted Hayden Roulston of Cervelo Test Team and Peter Weening of Rabobank to take the stage in 3 hours 24 minutes 43 seconds, a result that disappointed American veteran George Hincapie of Columbia-Highroad. Hincapie had hoped to win in Pasadena for the second straight year and he was part of a six-man breakaway that rode at the front of the peloton for much of the afternoon.

But in the last of five circuits through Pasadena, Hincapie couldn't fight off the three escapees and the stage win eluded him. And Rock Racing's Francisco Mancebo lost his chance to keep the King of the Mountain jersey when he crashed and was taken to a hospital with a concussion.

Also missing from today's start will be Belgian sprint star Tom Boonen, who decided to skip the arduous climbing course and get on a plane back to Europe so he can prepare more carefully for spring classics racing.

One man who is still racing is defrocked 2006 Tour de France champion Floyd Landis of Temecula. Landis, racing for the Ouch Presented by Maxxis team, is competing for the first time since a two-year doping suspension caused by a failed blood test taken after his famous Alps climb that gave him the 2006 win in France.

Landis has refused all interview requests here until Saturday and he made clear there would be no talk of past doping or his expensive and ultimately failed fight of his suspension.

What Landis did offer was a challenge to the men closest to Leipheimer.

Landis has been living in the San Jacinto Mountains and he regularly rides the Palomar climb that will bring the cyclists 5,123 feet high.

Landis, who is in 32nd place and more than 10 minutes behind, also spoke with a bit of humor.

"Well," he said, "I've never raced up Palomar before. My experience there usually involves having a burrito at the bottom and I'm not going to be able to do that.

"The first half of the climb is at 5 or 6% grade, the second half is at 8%, so it's as hard a climb as you can find anywhere. It's still a very close race overall and I don't know if guys are willing to take some chances and risk their places on the podium to try and take the win. But I would."

Leipheimer was relaxed after receiving his leader's jersey in a podium ceremony that included actress Ginnifer Goodwin of the HBO series "Big Love" and actor Luke Wilson.

"I'm confident in my team," Leipheimer said. Besides Leipheimer and Armstrong, three other Astana riders -- Janez Brajkovic, Chris Horner and Jose Luis Rubiera -- are in the top 12 overall.

"Astana is obviously an unbelievably strong team," Vandevelde said, "but we saw a lot of aggressive racing today. Our team isn't just going to roll over and let him have it. We'll give it a good go for [Zabriskie]."

That's what Landis would suggest. Go for it.

--

diane.pucin@latimes.com

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