By Kirsten Robbins in Escondido, California
After eight gruelling stages, pre-race favourite Levi Leipheimer won his third consecutive Tour of California, but unlike his previous triumphs, this was a victory like no other. The Santa Rosa native and his Astana team went up against longer stages, more climbing, foul weather, crashes and most importantly a higher calibre of competition.
Leipheimer took the golden leader's jersey after the stage two finish in Santa Cruz and claimed the overall win would come down to his stage six time trial performance. "A lot depended on those thirty minutes in Solvang," he said. "Those thirty minutes and the fact that I had the best team. We really did have the best team."
Leipheimer's winning time of 30:39 was fast enough to secure the stage victory over US National Time Trial Champion, David Zabriskie (Garmin-Slipstream). Zabriskie secured second place and Michael Rogers (Columbia-Highroad) rounded off the podium. There were no changes to the leading trio in the stages that followed.
Behind them in the overall classification the bad weather was starting to play a factor, ruling out many of the other pre-race favourites through sickness, crashes and a lack of form. It made for exciting racing, with riders like Landis, Hamilton and Schleck in positions of having nothing left but to push for stage wins, jersey points and the chance to crack Johan Bruyneel's men.
"He has a certain goal in the season and this was one of them," Bruyneel said of Leipheimer. "He's the kind of guy that when he really knows he is in a position to lead, everyone on the team really trusts that he is going to be ready. We saw it he was ready physically and in the wind tunnel to fine tune himself. Everyone saw that he was focused on the team goal. A leader has to show to the team he is ready because the guys have to suffer for him and they needed to know he will deliver. To do this three times in a row is not easy and there was a lot of pressure on him."
Mark Cavendish (Columbia-Highroad) convincingly won the event's Best Sprinter competition after his back-to-back victories in stages and five. "It was pretty tough riding over those climbs," Cavendish said. "That part was always going to be hard because they added the last stage that kept the overall up in the air all the way to the end."
Jason McCartney (Saxo Bank) moved into the KOM lead after the previous leader, Francisco Mancebo (Rock Racing) crashed on the penultimate stage. McCartney went into the eighth and final stage with a goal of picking up more points toward the jersey victory. "I think it was very unfortunate that Mancebo crashed yesterday," McCartney said. "I really wanted to honour the jersey and try to work at getting my team on the podium with it."
Robert Gesink (Rabobank) took home his third consecutive Best Young Rider Jersey but the Dutchman admitted that the jersey was not his primary goal. "I wanted to go for stage wins here," he said. "I am very happy to have the young rider jersey but I also think I was in good condition and could try to do something more."
According to Andrew Messick, President of AEG Sports, he tried to design a course that would challenge Leipheimer's winning streak. Though Leipheimer shone, the course design was a success in mimicking a true European-style tour. "We are looking forward to designing the 2010 course," Messick said. "We were treated to a race that felt like Europe, with a world-class international peloton. Cycling needs to have great races outside of Europe and it felt like that this week."
The final climb over Palomar Mountain was successful in bringing a European feel to North American bike racing. The 'queen' stage was held on the final day holding suspense in the race until the very end. "The speeds we went up Palomar and with the riders we had, I had to remind myself it was February in California and not July in the Alps."
Messick was satisfied with the new courses designs which included several new features. "We were optimistic a year ago with the course we wanted and how we wanted it to unfold," Messick said. "We never went to San Diego, the Sierras or Santa Cruz. Looking back those three stages were remarkable. There was epic racing and beautiful terrain and people are paying attention to what we are trying to accomplish. When you look up and down at the teams who were here they were loaded. There was a lot of pressure on Astana and Levi and on every turn they answered and it was amazing to watch."