Sunday, February 22, 2009

Congratulations Levi!

2009 AToC, stage 8 Leipheimer won his third straight Tour of California
Photo: Graham Watson

AToC: Three in a row

Posted Feb. 22, 2009

Astana’s Levi Leipheimer collected his third consecutive victory at the Amgen Tour of California on Sunday as Saxo Bank’s Fränk Schleck won the eighth and final stage, a 97-mile leg from Rancho Bernardo to Escondido.

The ball got rolling early as mountains leader Jason McCartney (Saxo Bank) charged after the first KOM points on Highland Valley Road, dogged by Steve Cozza (Garmin-Slipsteam). Tyler Hamilton (Rock Racing) tried to bridge, but got nowhere fast and dropped back to the bunch.

As McCartney took the maximum points with the help of teammate Andy Schleck, a nine-man break took shape, containing Cozza and Thomas Peterson (Garmin-Slipstream); Christophe Riblon and Bauke Mollema (Rabobank); Alexandre Moos (BMC); Ben Jacques-Maynes (Bissell); and Serge Pauwels (Cervélo TestTeam). Mollema was best placed in the break, sitting 19th overall at 5:44.

Liquigas, whose Vincenzo Nibali was sitting 10th on GC at 2:21, sent four riders to the front and was driving the chase with Astana tucked in behind. But the escapees quickly built a 45-second advantage en route to the second KOM at Lake Wohlford Road.

As Liquigas began to fade after 15 miles of chasing, OUCH-Maxxis came forward and drilled it in one long line, going Postal to launch Floyd Landis. Ahead, the break began to come apart, with Andy Schleck, McCartney, Pauwels and Jacques-Maynes taking a gap on their erstwhile companions. McCartney took max’ points once more as Landis roared up to the remnants of the break.

The effort was for naught, though, and Landis and the back markers were soon reabsorbed as Andy Schleck briefly drifted back from the break. That left three riders out front chased by a foursome that included the Saxo Bank rider, Stef Clement (Rabobank), Carlos Barredo (Quick Step) and Mathias Frank (BMC). The two groups eventually fused together and the break was up to seven, with Astana on the front of the bunch a half-minute behind.

Jacques-Maynes was now best-placed in the break at 24th at 6:56, and since he posed no threat to the yellow jersey Astana let the leaders take time on the Palomar climb, their advantage extending to two minutes and beyond.

The bunch seemed content to let Astana ride tempo until just before the feed zone, when Rock Racing’s Enrique Gutierrez took a dig, marked by OUCH’s Tim Johnson. Up front, as Andy Schleck paced McCartney, Barredo and Pauwels began to suffer and drifted out of the break. Behind, Oscar Sevilla (Rock Racing) tried a move, followed by Landis and teammate Rory Sutherland.

Then things got serious - Saxo’s Jens Voigt went up the road, joining his teammates in the break, and overall runner-up Michael Rogers (Columbia-Highroad) started pushing the pace, dogged by Thomas Danielson and David Zabriskie (Garmin-Slipstream), Robert Geskin (Rabobank), Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) and race leader Leipheimer, who was without teammates. Others followed suit, padding the break’s numbers, while Astana’s Lance Armstrong was leading a group at just over a minute behind.

As Andy Schleck finally sat up and drifted back, Voigt took over the pace-setting, driving what then was a nine-man break up and over the top of the Palomar climb. On the descent brother Fränk took a flyer, and after a moment's hesitation Nibali went after him. The Liquigas rider quickly latched on and the two began to work together.

More attacks followed: Glen Chadwick (Rock Racing) and Rabobank’s Mollema shot out of a reconstituted main field that saw Leipheimer get some backup, including Armstrong, Yaroslav Popvych and Chechu Rubiera. Schleck and Nibali sat up and waited for them, and it was a foursome off the front with a margin of perhaps a minute.

Chadwick attacked the lead group on the descent leading to the short, steep ascent of Cole Grade, a Cat. 4 climb 21 miles from the finish line. He briefly held a lead of a dozen seconds over his mates, but saw it vanish as the road tipped back up once more.

The yellow-jersey group was gaining ground, too, closing to within 45 seconds of the re-formed break with Barredo augmenting Astana’s three-man chase. And as the foursome hit Cole Grade the bunch had them in sight.

Then Nibali punched it early on the 2.4-mile climb and Schleck followed; Chadwick and Mollema were shelled instantly. Behind, Armstrong was setting the pace at the front of the bunch, in and out of the saddle, and half the break was soon back in the pack.

With 15 miles to go Nibali and Schleck clung to a lead of just over a minute as Quick Step added a second man to the Astana-led pursuit along the rolling road to Escondido. Garmin-Slipstream joined in, as did Columbia-Highroad and Rock Racing, but their assistance would prove too little, too late.

With 1km to go the two were still out front, and it was clear the bunch had waited too long to make the catch. Schleck sat on the young Italian going into the final left-hand corner, then shot around him on the right side of the finishing straight to take the win. George Hincapie (Columbia-Highroad) took the bunch sprint for third.

Stay tuned for a complete report, results, and photos.

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