Bike Racing, Solvang Style

Stage 5 of the Amgen Bike Race Sizzles

Levi%20Leipheimer.jpgShortly after 11 a.m. this morning, legs pounding furiously in the brisk winter air, American rider Antonio Cruz came flying down Mission Drive in Solvang, his lycra-clad body silhouetted against a snow-capped horizon. Cowbells ringing and boom bats banging, he leans hard to his left, the wind whooshing loudly against his back tire. Within a matter of seconds he is gone, streaking past Valley Plaza, down a long straight stretch of Alameda Pintado, well on his way to completing Stage 5 of the 2007 AMGEN Tour of California, leaving in his wake thousands of sun soaked smiling spectators. The above scene played out exactly 127 times Friday as everybody’s favorite local Danish village hosted the 14.4 mile Stage 5 time trial. Racing the clock rather than each other, the riders started in front of the Santa Ynez Mission — a new racer leaving every 60 seconds with the top 10 overall riders being allowed 2 minute gaps betwixt their respective starts.

With rain clouds long gone and bright blue February skies blanketing the course, current race leader and Santa Rosa native Levi Leipheimer — decked out in a dimpled speed suit tear drop shaped aerodynamic helmet — stretched his overall lead to a healthy 21 second margin by navigating the crosswind-raked wine country route in an astonishing 29 minutes and 40 seconds. An impressive testament to his athletic prowess, Leipheimer effortlessly and calmly testified mere minutes after his dramatic finish, “When I crossed the finish line I had nothing left…And that is a great feeling.” He had just averaged a little less than 30 miles per hour of sustained pedaling speed over 14.4 miles and hilly terrain — yet the man seemed no more winded than you or I would be if we had just gone to refrigerator for a beer. Traffic was snarled hours before the starter’s gun even sounded with droves of people colorfully lining Highway 246, huddled in downtown Los Olivos, and hording around the starting and finish lines in Solvang. In fact, Friday’s crowd pushed the total attendance numbers for the weeklong event past the 1 million person mark. Bands played, bicycle companies pedaled their latest and greatest, and some of the words best BMX riders back-flipped over large steel boxes as the masses wandered through the many sites and sounds of the sponsor-driven circus that accompanied the Tour to town. It was controlled and good-natured chaos that just happened to have several of the world’s best bike racers smack dab in the middle of it. The fun continues Saturday morning in downtown Santa Barbara with Stage 6 getting underway along Cabrillo Boulevard at 11 a.m. During the 105-mile ride to Santa Clarita via Montecito, Carpinteria, and Ojai, current number 2 Jens Voigt will look to close the gap on Leipheimer with Jason McCartney and Bobby Julich also still in the hunt at about a minute off the leaders pace.

Though anything can happen in the high speed high risk peloton during the final two of competition, it seems Leipheimer has a virtual lock on the prize that narrowly eluded him last year. As one seasoned race official put it after Thursday’s finish, “That should do it for Levi. You have a lead like that after the time trial and all you have to do [to win the whole thing] is stay on your bike the rest of the way and not hit anyone.” But with the pack of lycra-lined racers hitting the mountainous twists and turns of Stage 6 at mind-blowingly high speeds, the difficulty in staying on your bike will — for all parties involved — take on a whole new meaning.

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