Mellow Leipheimer puts Johnny into Gila lead

Seven time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong and Mellow Johnny's team-mate Chris Horner did the work of eight-men, bringing star-climber Levi Leipheimer into the opening stage victory and the overall race lead. The Californian rider powered up Mount Mogollon's eight-kilometre ascent with a commanding lead over talented American rider Peter Stetina (Garmin-Holowesko Partners-Felt) and Chris Baldwin (Rock Racing).

"I hope to win here," Leipheimer said. "Lance got to the climb and put the hurt on everyone, so all I had to do was make one big attack and I was gone. The other teams will probably try to take the lead away from me but we are going to figure it out as we go."

Leipheimer faces a tough battle to achieve his goal over the remaining four stages, given the talented pool of climbers in attendance. His stage race victories this season include a third consecutive Tour of California win and the recent Vuelta a Castilla y Leon.

"It was a nice climb but it was a difficult one," Armstrong said. "It was hard because it's at a high elevation. It's been a while since I've raced and you just can't simulate that in training.

"The win doesn't matter for me here but I think we are in a good position to win with Levi," Armstrong added. "We have a small team here so it will be hard to defend."

Fans caught a glimpse of Armstrong's look of determination on Mogollon, only this time he wasn't hunting for his own victory. He dutifully set a painful tempo that Leipheimer could handle and only six others could narrowly adjust to. The group of climbers emerged mid-way up the high-desert mountain side that included Stetina, Baldwin, Florian Stalder (Team B), Rory Sutherland (OUCH p/b Maxxis) and Matt Cooke (Ride Clean).

"I know I've been riding really well and I have good legs," said Stetina, who hopes to win the overall title. "I'm tired of getting the best young rider jersey. It's time to win the overall. When Levi went I tried to go with him but his acceleration was just to fast. In the end it was just me and Baldwin and I hit him with 200 meters to go for second."

A determined break away

There was a distinct anxiousness to get rolling at the start of the men's over-flowing 175-strong peloton. The high and dusty desert conditions can reach unbearably hot temperatures at mid-day, but at 9:00 in the morning the breeze was still crisp. The peloton wound its way up Snake Road, the first and only artery that ran in and out of Silver City in the 1930s. As the riders crossed the Continental Divide, the neutral zone ended and the race began.

Attacks were frequent during the opening 60 of the 151 kilometre road race. Every team rotated through efforts, circling two shorter 16 kms circuits until they were pushed back out on to the main Highway 180 for the long haul to finish line. Reigning World Pursuit Champion Taylor Phinney (Trek-Livestrong) attempted a solo move after a cagey running start into a tight right turn descent. The young talent held more than a minute margin over the peloton for 20 kms before being reabsorbed.

"I'm here to do what I can this week," said Phinney, who receives training guidance from Armstrong. "I think this first day was the most decisive. I'll probably just go with breakaway tactics and play our cards as best we can. It's cool to be here with Lance racing too. I'll do whatever he tells me I'm supposed to do."

The most decisive break away ignited after a timely attack from Chad Beyer (BMC). It included 15 riders that included Aaron Tuckerman (Land Rover), Chris Winn (RMCEF), Neil Shirely (Kelly Benefit Strategies), Dan Vaillancourt and Andy Guptill (Colavita-Sutter Home), Michael Grabinger and Scott Davis (Fly V Australia), Alister Ratcliff (BikeReg), Cameron Evans and Brad White (OUCH), Tim Henry (DLP), Sheldon Deeny (Bissell), Moises Aldape (Team Type 1) and Sam Bewley (Trek-Livestrong).

None of Mellow Johnny's riders were represented in the lead group as it gained a maximum of three minutes over the peloton. Horner was responsible for the brunt of the work to reduce the time down to a mere 16 second at the base of the climb. He received help from Canadian-based Planet Energy, which didn't have a rider in the breakaway.

"Chris did a great job jumping in and out of moves today, but if you do that all day it's not the most fun way to race," Leipheimer said. "A group ended up getting away and we weren't in it so Chris, Lance and a few other guys really worked hard to bring the gap down."

The surviving breakaway riders - Beyer, Cameron Evans (OUCH-Maxxis), Michael Grabinger (Fly V Australia) and Andy Guptill (Colavita-Sutter Home) - desperately hung onto a 10 second margin between their last wheel and Armstrong's hunt to reel them in. They were caught with five kilometres remaining.

"The hardest part of the climb is these steep pitches that just last so long," said Baldwin. "I was really impressed with Levi and Stetina."

Armstrong captures Mogollon victory

"It was a really tough climb but I just set my own tempo until the group got smaller and smaller," Armstrong said. "Once I got to the last rider, Rebecca Much, I rode in alone. I'm really impressed with Webcor today and especially Rebecca. She gave it everything she had and crawled across the finish line and fell over."

Armstrong claimed the race lead without any team-mates taking part in the race. She is up against some of the strongest climbers in North America, all hungry for the overall title.

"Tomorrow is not the hilliest stage but I think it is going to be very hard," Armstrong said.

Doing things the strong way

"At the start of the race I didn't want more than a 20 second gap on me because every one was watching me," Armstrong said. "I wanted to make sure it was closed down because it would take a lot more energy to do it later. I'm somewhat of a bulls-eye."

Much bridged across to the break away in an effort to put pressure on Armstrong. As the riders began the climb, Much took a commanding lead until Armstrong bridged across.

"It was great to see Webcor taking risks today," Armstrong said. "I believe that Rebecca gives it everything when she's racing and one day she is going to cross the finish line first. One day it's going to work, but you have to take a risk."

Armstrong caught and passed Much with three kilometres to go, but Much's team-mate Mattis was close behind in second place. Welsh, Catherine Cheatley (Colavita-Sutter Home), Alison Powers (Team Type 1), Leah Goldstein, Chrissy Ruiter and Robin Farina (VAC) followed the leaders several second back.

"Everyone was going as hard as they could on the climb," said Webcor-Builder's directeur sportif Karen Brems. "The first break wasn't an ideal combo for us because it was too late in the race and needed a combo that would force Armstrong to get tired."

The Tour of the Gila will continue with the stage two Fort Bayard Inner Loop road race. The professional men will complete 128 kilometres over a circuit while the women will complete 125 kilometres on the circuit which includes relentlessly undulating terrain.

"I think tomorrow will be the hardest stage for Kristin to control," Brems said. "She is a strong rider and she is going to be hard to beat but she can't watch everyone. There is not final climb tomorrow and we need to take this opportunity before the time trial."

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