By Kirsten Robbins in Escondido, California
The return of Lance Armstrong could be responsible for the huge crowds that have greeted the riders over the course of the week, but also factoring in is the first visit of the Tour of California to San Diego County, a hotbed for cycling. Hundreds of fans began camping on the top of Mount Palomar days in advance, and by the time the race rolled through there were thousands at the top.
The decisive climb was located mid-stage and resembled that of a narrow European ascent, less for its length or gradient and more because of the notorious mountain contenders that pushed their way through the screaming crowds either side as they weaved up to reach the top.
Overall winner Levi Leipheimer looked around and saw the faces of his own teammate Lance Armstrong, Fränk and Andy Schleck, Michael Rogers, Robert Gesink, David Zabriskie and Vincenzo Nibali. If the 2008 Tour de France winner, Carlos Sastre and the former Giro d' Italia winner Ivan Basso had not abandoned the race due to injuries, it would have had even more of a Grand Tour feeling.
"With the speed we climbed and with the riders we were surrounded by in the last kilometres, I had to remind myself it was February in California and not July in the Alps," said Leipheimer.
Zabriskie was impressed with the number of fans, but was a bit skeptical as to how well under control the crowds were. "The crowds were impressive, but were kind of tripping over each other at the top. I had to keep my head up. They are used to it in Europe and get out of the way, but I wasn't sure here. But I had a great time and it was nice to have them all over the course cheering."
Palomar Mountain climbed nearly 20 kilometres and up to 5,123 feet, with a seven percent average grade, 4,200 feet of climbing and 21 switchbacks. According to Armstrong the climb was "legit."
"It was very similar to a European climb, steady and consistent," Armstrong said. "There are not a lot of climbs in the USA that are like that. It was very, very hard. Plus, it's not exactly right down the street from everybody's house. Its pretty remote up there, I heard stories of people camping out last night. It's very, very European – it's amazing."