Today was the queen stage in the 2008 Amgen Tour of California (AToC) with the grueling climbs of Mount Hamilton and Sierra Road looking to separate the pretenders from the contenders. And that it did, providing some of the most memorable moments in the three-year history of the event.
Before the stage, I asked Levi if he thought the race would be made on the first (Mount Hamilton) or second (Sierra Road) climb. His response was simply "Sierra Road." His Team Astana teammate Chris Horner echoed his leader's reply noting that the game plan was to get as many Astana riders as possible over Mount Hamilton and then let it play out on the punishing 13-15 percent slopes of Sierra Road.
And that's what Astana did, bringing back everybody including a bold move by High Road Sports rider George Hincapie. When the 15-rider strong lead group hit the final climb it was definitely game on. Astana's Che Chu Rubiera laid down some heavy tempo for the first third of the climb and then the race exploded. It was great to see Che Chu at the front of the race in the mountains giving his all for his team leader, even more so as he set tempo up a major portion of Mount Hamilton as well. It was clearly a reminder of how hard he worked for Lance in his multiple Tour de France wins.
Back to the final climb where it was down to just four riders, Leipheimer, Horner, Dave Zabriskie and Robert Gesink of Rabobank at the halfway mark when Gesink, who rode well on Sierra last year as well, put in a vicious attack and then there were only two. Clearly gunning for the stage win, Gesink set a hard tempo as he and Leipheimer pulled away, cresting the summit 45 seconds ahead of Zabriskie and Horner, who were to be caught by the remains of the original 15-man lead group on the descent.
What ensued was cat-and-mouse with Gesink and Leipheimer doing all they could to hold off the charging bunch. At the finish, Gesink took the stage with Leipheimer taking the leader's jersey. But wait, there's more...Fabian Cancellara was able to infiltrate the chase group which means Levi's lead is a mere 13 or so seconds over the two-time World Time Trial Champion. At the finish, I asked Levi if he had won the AToC today, he astutely said, "no, it is a long ways from over."
It looks like the race will come down to Friday's individual time trial. Don't count out Slipstream/Chipotle's two Daves, Zabriskie and Millar. They are both capable of putting together a ride to take the jersey from Levi. And with only 15-30 seconds separating a whole host of riders while Levi is in the driver's seat, the race is far from over. Back in 2006, Leipheimer wore the race leader's jersey into the San Jose TT only to have Floyd Landis take it off his back. However, as true champions do, Levi made amends last year and simply
smoked the entire field in Solvang in 2007. Not to put any pressure on the Leipheimer, but it is now his race to lose.
Hey, how about the Gesink kid. Last Friday, I went riding with the Rabobank team in the hills above Silicon Valley. I remembered Robert from his cracking ride last year and remarked that with his skinny physique, he looked like a climber. His response was, "yeah, but I am too long[tall]." I wish I was that tall! He even sat on my wheel and let me set the pace on the climbs. What a nice guy.