Levi Leipheimer is poised to ride through Solvang to his third consecutive triumph in America’s most prestigious cycling race, but for the first time he will have to hold off Lance Armstrong in the pivotal 15-mile time trial Friday (Feb. 20).

Leipheimer, riding comfortably with his Astana teammates, maintained his lead in the Amgen Tour of California on Thursday, as the 134-mile stage from Visalia to Paso Robles came down to a mass finish. Britain’s turbocharged Mark Cavendish, far back in the overall standings, won a mad sprint down Spring Street to collect his second straight stage win. The first 59 finishers all were given the same time: five hours, seven minutes and 28 seconds.

In the big picture, Leipheimer holds a lead of 24 seconds over Australia’s Michael Rogers of Team Columbia-High Road. Another four seconds back is David Zabriskie of Garmin-Slipstream.

The next three are all from Astana – Armstrong (30 seconds behind), Christopher Horner (34), and Janez Brajkovic (38). Ranked eighth, also 38 seconds off the pace, is Astana’s Luis Rubiera. Throughout the past five days, they have been riding in support of Leipheimer, keeping him ahead of the other contenders in the peloton. But Friday, it’s every man for himself.

Starting at noon, 124 riders will launch themselves down a ramp in downtown Solvang at 60-second intervals. They will race the clock on a route that will take them through Los Olivos, up a steep hill on Ballard Canyon Road, and back to the finish line on Copenhagen Drive.

The competitors will start in reverse order of the overall standings, giving Leipheimer the advantage of knowing the time he has to beat. The Santa Rosa native was the fastest man on the course in 2007 and 2008. His time last year was 30 minutes, 46.8 seconds – 29 seconds faster than anybody else.

It will be interesting to see how fast Armstrong goes in his first major time trial since starting his comeback after three years out of competition. He was always strong in the “race of truth,” as the time trial is known, during his seven Tour de France championships.

But it’s February in California, not July in France, and that should give Leipheimer confidence Friday. If he remains in the lead after this stage, he will be a good bet to stay there in the last two stages – Santa Clarita-to-Pasadena (89 miles) and Rancho Bernardo-to-Escondido (97 miles) – with the help of his teammates.


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