Ahh, and the universe is unfolding as it should. I was sad and then I was oh, so happy.
I'm not really that mean. I would actually feel sorry for the guy if he hadn't lost it for cheating.
If you have no idea what I'm talking about, read on...
Two intermediate sprints and four KOM climbs out on the course today to give the riders a chance to shake up this race a bit and try to unseat Levi Leipheimer as the race leader. Still not sunny California weather as riders were met with a chilly breeze and more clouds over the road today.
As usual there were lots of attacks right out of the gate. During all the vying for position, Bernard Van Ulden (Jelly Belly) crashed and abandoned. He was taken to the hospital by ambulance.
The peloton chased down each attack attempt and then a flurry of counterattacks would begin. Astana was working hard at the front. No one was napping in the peloton today as the attacks just kept coming – many of them from Slipstream. With three riders in the top ten the argyle team was doing their best to blow apart the Astana squad and isolate Leipheimer to try to have one of their GC men put some time into him.
Jurgen Vandewalle (Quick Step) got top points over the first KOM climb. The second KOM climb followed just a couple of miles later and Christophe Le Mevel (Credit Agricole) took first spot there.
A break of six finally got away just after the second climb and opened up a gap of about one minute. They included: Christophe Le Mevel (Credit Agricole), Steven Cozza (Slipstream), Karsten Kroon (Team CSC), Rory Sutherland (Health Net), David Canada Gracia (Saunier Duval-Scott) and Alexandre Pichot (Bouygues Telecom).
With no real threats to Levi’s GC position up in the break things calmed down a bit as Astana let the break go and relaxed into setting a steady pace and protecting the yellow jersey.
Through the first intermediate sprint the leaders did not contest it since none of them is seriously in the fight for the sprint jersey. They rolled through with David Canada Gracia (Saunier Duval-Scott) first, Rory Sutherland (Health Net) and Steven Cozza (Slipstream) third. Christophe Le Mevel (Credit Agricole) and Rory Sutherland (Health Net) were the first two over the third KOM climb of the day as the temperature dropped a bit and more layers of clothing came out. The gap had now opened to almost seven minutes.
Again at the second and final intermediate sprint the lead group just barreled through together – no fight for those sprint points or time bonuses. These guys just wanted to work together to try to get to the end and be able to fight it out for a stage win.
The final KOM climb of the day was the famous Balcom Canyon climb. A category four climb at 1,027 feet (313m). Crowds lined the roads of this nasty climb as the break away struggled to the top. Canada again took first place over the climb followed by Sutherland and Pichot.
With about 65 km to go Team High Road took an interest in helping Astana to start to bring back the break and the gap came down to 6.15. Rabobank joined the effort and the gap was soon down to 5.30. The sprinters’ teams wanted another shot at a stage win.
The men in the break were noticeably struggling as the peloton continued to steadily reel them in and their time gap diminished quickly. Quick Step had joined the chase and the peloton was stepping on the gas. Leipheimer was tucked safely in behind his Astana boys looking smooth and focused.
With 30 km to go the gap was down to 3.10. The Astana train took a hit though when Vladimir Gusev took a nasty crash and was taken to hospital by ambulance. Gusev has worked so hard to protect Levi during this race - a big loss for the team.
Once the race entered Santa Clarita the riders had three circuits of 3.5 miles each to complete before the finish. The gap was down to 2.30 and they looked tired.
With the gap down to two minutes the sprinters started to move up to the front of the pack. The guys in the break surely could feel Tom Boonen, Freddie Rodriguez, Paolo Bettini and Mark Cavendish breathing down their necks.
Up in the break Steven Cozza appeared to be having a hard time taking less and less time pulling on the front, head drooping. The other riders in the break were talking, likely strategizing as the weak link of Cozza was making it even harder for them to keep the gap open.
Back in the peloton, Hincapie was on the front just drilling it home for High Road setting a brutal pace that was having a clear effect on the rest of the field which was breaking up all over the road. This is the stage where Hincapie broke his wrist last year but he didn’t appear to be thinking about that today.
A touch of wheels among the Rock Racing boys resulted in a crash that took down four out of five-man Rock Racing team. Freddie Rodriguez had a lot of trouble getting up but he managed to get back on the bike and continue on.
With the gap down to 25 seconds the break away group began to split as attacks began. Each one was checked by the others. Surprisingly, Steven Cozza, despite looking the weakest in the group earlier, was doing most of the attacking.
Mark Cavendish (High Road) took a nasty fall but he was back up on the bike quickly.
Suddenly, David Millar took off from the peloton and passed the break away group. Millar was in full time trial mode. Only 49 seconds separated he and Levi on GC with a 10 second time bonus at the finish for first place. Canada and Pichot grabbed Millar’s wheel and the three were off ahead of the rest as a new three-man break away.
Astana came to the front. They could not let Millar get that far ahead. Quick Step was happy to help in order to keep Boonen in contention for the stage win and at 1 km to go all the break away members – including Millar – were caught.
Yesterday’s stage winner and current green jersey holder Dominique Rollin (Toyota United) hit the gas early which caught some of the other sprinters by surprise. Friere (Rabobank) and Cavendish (High Road) reacted but it was Cavendish who got around Rollin and managed to hit the line first.
It seemed as though Cavendish had the win for High Road and he was elated coming over the line. However, shortly afterwards race officials announced that they were giving him a 20 second time penalty for hanging onto a team car when trying to rejoin the peloton after his crash on the final circuits. The stage win instead went to Luciano André Pagliarini Mendonca (Saunier Duval) – a big blow for Cavendish and the High Road team.
Levi came in safely right behind the sprinters keeping the yellow jersey squarely on his back going into the final day of the race tomorrow.