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The Tour of California heads south as the podium battle narrows

By Steve Frothingham • Published

By Ben Delaney

Thursday's stage runs south along the Pacific Coast Highway

Thursday’s stage runs south along the Pacific Coast Highway

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

As predicted, stage 3 proved itself pivotal to the overall of the Amgen Tour of California. While we don’t yet know who will take the overall title, we can probably rule out 115 of the 120 men left in the race. Those still with a realistic chance include defending champion Levi Leipheimer (Astana), world time trial champion Fabian Cancellara (CSC) and three Slipstream-Chipotle riders: Dave Zabriskie, David Millar and Christian Vande Velde.

The race now comes down to how well the 16 men who finished at the front of stage 3 can time trial. With the exception of José Luis “Chechu” Rubiera, who lost time earlier in the race, these men all sit at least four minutes ahead of the rest of the field after making an elite split on the race’s biggest climbing day.

Besides the five listed above, those at the front of the race include Quick Step’s Jurgen Vandewalle and Kevin Seeldraeyers, Rabobank’s Robert Gesink and Mauricio Alberto Ardila, CSC’s Gustav Larsson, Astana’s Chris Horner, BMC’s Alexandre Moos, Rock Racing’s Victor Hugo Pena, Slipstream’s Tom Peterson, and Gerolsteiner’s Oliver Zaugg. With the exceptions of Cancellara’s teammate Larsson and Rock’s Pena (a Giro d’Italia time trial stage winner), none can race against the clock with the likes of Leipheimer, Cancellara, Zabriskie or Millar.

One team notably no longer represented in overall contention is High Road. George Hincapie took a gutsy flyer on the twisty descent off Mt. Hamilton, but he was caught on the final climb of the day and was dropped. He finished 7:23 behind Gesink and Leipheimer. His High Road teammate Kim Kirchen made the second chase group on the road, which finished 4:20 back on the leaders. Kirchen is now the team’s best-placed rider, 4:28 down on the overall.

Other men no longer in the running include those bowled over by the stomach bug that is still moving through the peloton. Yellow jersey Tyler Farrar (Slipstream) was among six sick men who quit the race on stage 3. Three others didn’t make the time cut, including two men who have been sick.

So, barring incident, we have five contenders for the final title. Stage 4 is a rolling ride the coast from Seaside to San Luis Obispo. Leipheimer’s capable Astana squad will escort him safely through the day, defending his jersey.

If High Road’s Mark Cavendish is still in the group, watch for him in the sprint, along with 2008 ATOC stage winners Tom Boonen and J.J. Haedo.

Stage 5, the 15-mile time trial, will decide the race.

Based on the 2.1-mile prologue, Cancellara is the favorite. He put 6 seconds on Leipheimer in Palo Alto. On a rolling course in Solvang, the big Swiss rider stands to regain the 13 seconds by which he trails Leipheimer in the general classification.

Cancellara’s boss, CSC directeur sportif Bjarne Riss, wasn’t so quick to hand the race to his rider, however.

“I don’t think so, because if Levi’s that strong he’ll win the time trial,” Riis said after stage 3.

Leipheimer won the Solvang time trial last year, putting 37 seconds on Cancellara. However, Cancellara is fitter than he was a year ago.

Slipstream’s Millar, Zabriskie and Vande Velde sit 20, 21 and 23 seconds behind the jersey, respectively. Millar and Zabriskie are the best time trialists of the argyle trio, having both won Tour de France time trials among other events, but Vande Velde, a former pursuit specialist, can hold his own.

Stage 6 features three Cat. 4 climbs and one Cat. 3 climb. None of those should shed any of the five contenders. Stage 7 rises to the race’s highest point, the 4906-foot Millcreek Summit, before bombing down to the 800-foot finishing circuits in Pasadena.

If Leipheimer and Cancellara, plus any of the Slipstream crew, are still close after the time trial, the race for the overall could go all the way to the end of stage 7.

Tune in for live coverage of stage 4 at 9:45 a.m. PST.

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