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

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
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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