Levi Leipheimer said he had his doubts going into Stage 5 of the Amgen Tour of California, but after blowing away the competition in the 15-mile Solvang time trial Friday, few observers doubt that he will be wearing the yellow leader’s jersey for the remainder of the 650-mile bicycle marathon.
Seemingly unaffected by the harsh conditions that devastated the field on the previous day, Leipheimer sped around the course in 30 minutes, 46.8 seconds a roaring 29 seconds faster than runner-up David Millar.
Leipheimer, the defending champion, will take a 49-second overall lead today (Saturday) into Stage 6, a 105-mile trek from Santa Barbara to Santa Clarita. A year ago, he had a 21-second advantage at the same point of the tour. He will be backed by a strong Astana team as he seeks his second title.
Millar, the British time trial champion, moved into second place Friday, and his Slipstream/Chipotle teammate Christian Vandevelde took over third, 1:08 behind the leader.
Fabian Cancellara, who was only 13 seconds behind Leipheimer at the start of the day, dropped back to fourth place, 1:18 behind. Cancellara won the opening prologue and is the reigning world time trial champion, but he might have been feeling the effects of Thursday’s stage from Seaside to San Luis Obispo 135 miles and over seven hours of slogging through drenching rain and daunting winds.
Pat McQuaid, president of the international cycling union, called it “one of the worst days cyclists could encounter . . . They’ll remember it for years to come.”
A stomach virus also took its toll on the field, which was reduced to 104 in Solvang after 133 riders had started the tour Sunday at Stanford.
Conditions were cloudy and breezy as the time trial at began at noon. Starting at intervals in downtown Solvang, the riders turned north and wound through Los Olivos, climbed a hill east of the town and returned to Solvang via Ballard Canyon Road.
Leipheimer, a 34-year-old Santa Rosa native, cut through the wind as he hunched his small frame (5’7″ and 140 pounds) over his bike.
“I had my doubts,” said Leipheimer, the last rider out of the starting chute. “I told myself I’m going to go out there and do my best.” Astana team director Viatcheslav Ekimov was in radio contact with him. “He said, ‘Man, it’s so close, you gotta go,’ ” Leipheimer said. It wasn’t really that close, as Leipheimer shaved more than a minute off the time of Cancellara, the next-to-last rider.
When he made a left turn into the 200-yard homestretch on Copenhagen Drive, the winner poured it on. “I was a little cross-eyed,” Leipheimer said.
In the post-race awards ceremony, Dominique Rollin of Toyota-United got special recognition for his heroic solo effort in winning the brutal State 4 in San Luis Obispo. The Canadian finished 69th in the time trial and is 48th overall.
Nineteen amateur riders who raised money to participate competed on the same 15-mile course in the morning. Finishing second in the “Race of Truth” was 41-year-old Matt Benko of Santa Barbara. Benko, sponsor of Team Chicken Ranch, was timed in 37:27. He finished 23 seconds behind Mike Hellman of Kentfield. Jeff Nichols of Los Olivos placed third.
Saturday’s Amgen Tour stage will start at 11 a.m. on Cabrillo Boulevard east of Garden Street. The first three miles will be neutral as the riders parade around the Bird Refuge onto Hot Springs Road. At the intersection of Sycamore Canyon Road and East Valley Road, the chains will go taut as the 105 miles of racing commence. Casitas Pass will be the first of three climbs before the riders descend into Santa Clarita.
“It’s going to be guns blazing the first half of the race out of Santa Barbara,” Vandevelde said.
If any of the contenders try to break away, though, they can count on Leipheimer and Astana to be stalking them.
The tour will end Sunday at the Rose Bowl after it reaches the highest point of its three-year history, the 4,906-foot Millcreek Summit on the Angeles Crest Highway.