Mark Cavendish won his second stage of the Amgen Tour of California (AToC) in as many days once again besting Tom Boonen. The Columbia-High Road sprinter won the race's longest stage at 134 miles, but all eyes were looking southward toward Solvang where the most decisive stage of the race, a 15-mile individual time trial, will most like decide the winner of the 4th edition of America's biggest and best race.
While two-time overall champion Levi Leipheimer goes for the three-peat, the big question is whether Team Astana boss Johan Bruyneel will let Lance Armstrong go all out in the time trial. There may seem to be an obvious answer to the question, but with two difficult days in the mountains looming, Lance may need to save his strength to be able to defend Levi's jersey.
That, of course, is assuming that Levi keeps the jersey. He has owned the Solvang TT since its inception and his fitness and drive seem to indicate that he will continue his domination. With Lance as the closest placed teammate in fourth, just 30 seconds back, it might make sense to play it safe and let Armstrong go full gas. If Levi flats, crashes or just has a bad day, having someone who can step in and take over the race leadership is a big plus. That's exactly the role Levi played for Alberto Contador in last year's Vuelta a Espana. Levi finished second overall, but if Contador had come to grief, Team Astana would still have won the race. After all, it is all about the team.
However, if Levi does ride to the level we can expect, Lance may be needed to help defend the jersey in the final two days. If you remember the 2007 Tour of California, Jen Voigt was in second place behind Levi going into the time trial. The German went all out and almost won the race. But, in 2008, Jens held back inthe time trial because his teammate, Fabian Cancellara, was in second place to Levi and if Cancellara beat Levi and took the jersey, Jens' strength would be needed to defend the jersey.
All this discussion may be moot because Team Astana is the strongest squad in the race and even if Lance does go full gas, rider like Yaroslav Popvych, Jani Brajkovic, Chechu Rubiera and Chris Horner are clearly capable of working at the front to keep the jersey on Levi's shoulders.
Personally, I would like to see Lance unleashed just to see what he can do and where his fitness is at this time of year. I think Levi is a tad bit stronger than Lance so I still see Leipheimer winning, but a one-two finish is not out of the question.
Also, I like both Mic Rogers and Dave Zabriskie, the riders in second and third place overall and hope that they both ride well. It might be a bit too early for Rogers to ride the type of time trial we expect from a three-time World Champion in this discipline, but you never know. Dave Z is supremely motivated to do well, I hope he can pull out a good ride and keep his spot on the podium.
Sort of race notes:
Here are photos of some of the spectators along the course: