Friday's Stage 5 individual time trial in Solvang was intended from the start to be the kind of race that would allow the top competitors to lay it all out. If you were going to get a podium spot, you had to make a statement here. Well, race organizers got what they wanted.
Solvang is a small village surrounded by pastoral hills between San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara. I knew it was supposed to be a place that had a some European characteristics, I just didn't realize how distinct those traits would be.
They were definitely distinct. At first, the town has a Disney-created feel to it. But once you wander around, you notice that the people have put effort into the built environment. This is where and how they want to live. The community was very welcoming and I heard over and over, "Come back to see us." "Thanks for coming to our town." "We'd love to have you back in Solvang." And not just from the tourism bureau.
At first, I thought this was the Press Room. But it turns out (unfortunately) it wasn't.
So back to the race. The time trial consisted of 15 miles around the countryside, with some rolling hills and winding roads. The battle was expected to be between Levi Leipheimer and Fabian Cancellara. Because time trials are seeded by overall classification, those two would start last.
The numerous fans along the course and near the start/finish seemed pretty cycling savvy. Yet despite the big names that came through every now and again (like Jens Voigt passing the Specialized Angel, above), the buzz was basically "How close are we to Fabian and Levi?"
The two riders before them were Slipstream/Chipotle rider David Millar and Rabobank's Robert Gesink. Gesink wasn't really a threat to win the stage (he finished 20th), but Millar looked to be dialed in from the start.
After all the riders were on the course, word slowly started coming back that Millar and Leipheimer were tearing it up while Cancellara was struggling to keep pace with them.
The crowd went nuts when Leipheimer motored across the line well ahead of Cancellara and 29 seconds ahead of second-place Millar.
True, the overall race isn't won, but the feeling at that moment was that it's Levi's to lose. I'm becoming more and more impressed, however, with Team Slipstream/Chipotle. Both Millar and Christian Vande Velde grabbed podium spots, moving the squad into the overall lead of the team classification. They're out there to prove they aren't just a fashion-conscious, steroid-free team, but that their main goal is the same as everyone else's: To win bicycle races.