Mon, Feb 23, 2009 - Page 19 News List

Italian’s win can’t end Leipheimer’s lead

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , PASADENA, CALIFORNIA

The peloton lead by Astana makes its way over the Millcreek Summit during Stage 7 of the Tour of California in Los Angeles County, California, on Saturday.

PHOTO: AFP

As the Tour of California drew near a close on Saturday, a pair of truths became evident: It’s going to be a chore for any of the riders to run down the leader Levi Leipheimer and it will not be easy for Floyd Landis to ride away from his past.

Leipheimer’s Astanta teammates built a cocoon around him during Stage 7, and though they gave away 2 minutes, 19 seconds to a breakaway pack of riders led by Rinaldo Nocentini, who won the 144.7km leg in 3 hours, 24.43 seconds, none of the 10 riders they let get away was a threat to the overall lead.

Entering yesterday’s final stage, Leipheimer’s lead remained intact: 36 seconds over David Zabriksie of Garmin-Slipstream and 45 seconds over Michael Rogers of Columbia-Highroad, who shaved one second off his deficit.

There were some anxious moments after a pair of crashes on the steep descent out of the Angeles National Forest toward the finish line at the Rose Bowl. One of them sent Francisco Mancebo, who began the day in 10th place, to a hospital where he is being treated for a concussion and a broken hand and elbow, said his team, Rock Racing.

But Leipheimer was spared any drama.

“He’s still got the yellow jersey and we minimized the time damage,” said Chris Horner, one of Astana’s support riders.

Another teammate, Lance Armstrong, stopped to change a wheel, but he did not stop to talk with reporters, whom he brushed past when he signed autographs outside the team trailer. He then hopped into a dark-windowed SUV that was headed for the final stage near San Diego.

In more of a mood to talk was Landis, who had not held a news conference or spoken extensively to reporters since his two-year suspension for doping ended last month.

“I missed bicycle racing,” Landis said. “I spent a large part of my life doing it. For the last few years I’ve been gone. It feels good to be back. I don’t know what the long-term goals are. It gets to a point where goals are very short sighted. Like right now — I’m going to go find a place to lie down.”

It was the same sort of self-deprecating humor that added to Landis’s charm when he won the 2006 Tour after a spectacular victory in Stage 17.

The starting line on Saturday, at a shopping mall in Santa Clarita, offered a poignant contrast — a group of about a half-dozen riders book-ended by Landis and Armstrong, the two most famous US, though for different reasons.

As Landis’s name was announced, the crowd cheered modestly, as it did for all other riders not named Armstrong.

Earlier, Landis received shouts of encouragement as he prepared his bike near his Ouch team’s trailer.

Landis said it had been a tiring Tour. He expressed disappointment with his performance; he is 32nd over all, 10:26 behind Leipheimer.

Landis said he was not sure what the future held. He planned to race in Mexico next month and was not sure if he would go to Europe — or if he would even be welcomed back.

“After two years of trying to figure out how this exactly works, I’m not clear on a lot of things,” Landis said.

He was looking forward to the final stage that included an ascent of Mount Palomar, which had served as a training ride for him near his home in Temecula, California.

“I’ve never raced up it before,” Landis said. “My experience usually involves having a burrito at the bottom. I’m not going to be able to do that.”

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