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CYCLING

Levi Leipheimer wins his third straight Amgen Tour of California

Exuberant crowd turns out in North San Diego County to greet riders, particularly Lance Armstrong, who finished his first Tour of California in seventh overall.

February 23, 2009|Diane Pucin

ESCONDIDO — Levi Leipheimer of Astana won his third consecutive Amgen Tour of California championship Sunday in a time of 31 hours 28 minutes 21 seconds after an emotional final stage where the crowd at the top of Palomar Mountain formed a rowdy tunnel of noisy exuberance and filled the streets of almost each of the 98.6 miles ridden between Rancho Bernardo and Escondido.

Frank Schleck of Team Saxo Bank won Stage 8 in a time of 3 hours 48 minutes 39 seconds. He was happy and so was his teammate Jason McCartney, who was the top climber.

Columbia-Slipstream's young sprinter Mark Cavendish fought over his less-than-favorite thing, a mountaintop, and managed to win the overall sprinter's title, a triumph of both his spirit and the intrepid pacing of his teammate Michael Barry.

Rabobank's Robert Gesink was the race's best young rider jersey. Garmin-Slipstream's David Zabriskie was second overall, 36 seconds behind Leipheimer, and Columbia-Highroad's Michael Rogers was third overall and they also got to celebrate on the victory podium.

But, really, the fact that race organizers estimated attendance during the nine-day, 750-mile trip from Sacramento as more than 2 million, that Versus televised some portion of the race live every day but one, that it was seen in 200 countries, was thanks to a rider who wasn't on the podium but whose name was chalked on nearly every road Sunday, and whose fans waved hundreds of "Lance Fan" signs or wore yellow Livestrong jerseys.

Riding for Astana, Lance Armstrong finished his first-ever Tour of California in seventh place overall, 1:46 behind Leipheimer. His comeback after nearly four years of retirement is only two months, and two competitions, old. He has no stage wins yet and a newfound appreciation of being the helper rider instead of the champion.

Armstrong, 37, had quit the sport after his record seventh consecutive Tour de France victory in 2005. His comeback, he has said, is two parts.

One is to create more awareness for his Lance Armstrong Foundation's fund- raising efforts for cancer research, and the other is to compete again.

After these nine days of racing, which included a slightly disappointing 14th place in his first time trial of the year, Armstrong suggested not winning an eighth straight Tour de France or his first Giro d'Italia wouldn't be disappointing.

"If we achieve our goals from the cancer perspective," Armstrong said, "and I ride as a domestique all year long, I don't care. It might be good for me to do things like that. I've spent 15 years sitting on people's wheels, waiting to attack and taking all the glory. This might be good for my life."

Armstrong said he leaves California with some adjustments to make before he takes on what will be his two biggest races of the season, the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France.

He had worked on a new time-trial position before the race. "That position didn't work out the way I wanted," Armstrong said. "I'll make some adjustments there."

He said he wants to lose some weight.

"To win the tours you need to be as strong as possible and as light as possible," Armstrong said. "I don't need to get much stronger, but I have to get lighter."

Astana's general manager Johan Bruyneel, who guided Armstrong through all seven Tour de France wins, said what Armstrong needs is time.

"His condition is pretty good, but after three years out he had also checked out mentally," Bruyneel said. "There are a lot of things he needs to get used to, little things, and it is not very smart to try and accelerate that process. It's possible for him to be back at a high level. How high compared to what he was? We still don't know that."

For Leipheimer, the rest of the season will be very different. On his Astana team, besides Armstrong, is 2007 Tour de France winner and 2008 Giro d'Italia and Spanish Vuelta winner Alberto Contador. Contador finished his first competition of the year Sunday, winning the Volta au Algarve in Portugal.

"It will be a different role for me now," Leipheimer said. "We have such a strong team, and I need to pay these guys back.

"I'll ride for Alberto at Paris-Nice, Lance at the Giro and then get to July and the Tour de France, and we'll have the best team there and I'll ride for the strongest rider, Lance or Alberto. Now we have to wait and see."

--

diane.pucin@latimes.com

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