Gila finale will see all guns a-blazin’

Defending champion Levi Leipheimer sits in a position that is at once comfortable yet precarious heading into the final stage of the SRAM Tour of the Gila.

With a 59-second advantage over DZ Nuts rider Tom Danielson, and another five seconds over DZ Nuts’ namesake Dave Zabriskie, Mellow Johnny’s rider Levi Leipheimer sits in a comfortable yet precarious position heading into Sunday’s final stage of the SRAM Tour of the Gila.

To be sure, a full minute is a healthy lead with just one stage remaining for Leipheimer, one of the top climbers in the sport and the 2009 overall Gila winner.

However, Sunday’s stage is a summit finish — a setting in bike racing where time can quickly be lost — and Leipheimer’s closest rivals are teammates, which could create a sticky situation for the Mellow Johnny’s rider.

Leipheimer’s teammates, Lance Armstrong and Jason McCartney, have ridden at the front all week, defending his lead, since he won the opening stage 10 seconds ahead of Danielson at the summit finish of the Mogollon climb. Armstrong has also showed chinks in the armor, finishing 1:46 behind Leipheimer on Mogollon and 1:50 off the winning pace on Friday’s time trial.

Zabriskie said he and Danielson both know the Gila Monster climb well and are entering the final stage ready to attack Leipheimer repeatedly.

“We’re very familiar with the roads, having done team training camps here multiple times,” Zabriskie said. “It’s a difficult stage. I think Tommy D and myself, we’re in a position to try and give Levi a hard time. We’ll try and win.”

Asked if beating Leipheimer seems feasible, Zabriskie answered, “Everyone’s beatable. We learned that in ‘Rocky III.’ And ‘Rocky IV.’ And ‘Rocky V.’”

Nor has Danielson conceded defeat. He says he, not Leipheimer, is the man with nothing to lose.

“You always have to think that you can win,” Danielson said. “I guess the old me would think, ‘Okay, I’m second, that’s great, I’ll try to hold on to it.’ But I’d like to see myself come out of my shell and be a little more aggressive and have some more confidence. My wife and I have been talking a lot about just riding like an animal — don’t even think about being human, just put it all out there. If I can do it, that will be great. And if not, I’ll go down trying for sure.”

Also in the mix is last year’s Gila Monster stage winner, Fly V Australia’s Phil Zajicek, who sits fourth overall, 1:14 behind Leipheimer. Last year Zajicek was the only rider to stay with Leipheimer and Armstrong to the top of the Gila Monster, coming around them both for the stage win. Zajicek said he feels as good, if  not better, than he did one year ago.

“I can’t exactly fly under the radar after winning the stage last year,” Zajicek said. “I think it’s going to separate really quickly on the climb out of the Gila Cliff Dwellings.

“It’s going to be different than last year, because Levi doesn’t have (Chris) Horner, and I don’t think Lance is riding as well as he was last year. I really think it’s going to be three or four of us, and that will be it; it’s going to be Levi isolated a lot earlier. I think he is going to have to put in a big attack a lot earlier in the day. It’s going to be exciting. I think I can move on to the podium. I feel really good.”

Leipheimer goes into the stage with the confidence that he was the strongest of the three podium contenders on both the opening stage and in the stage 3 time trial, yet knowing he’ll likely be double-teamed in the final kilometers.

“They’re going to be coming at us, and we’ve only got three guys on the team,” Leipheimer told VeloNews. “Not to mention all the strong domestic squads, they’ve got nothing to lose. They’re going to throw everything into it. It’s tricky. It’s going to be tough.

“But at the same time, that’s what we came here for. We came here to push ourselves and to train hard and to race hard. That’s the best training. We’re looking forward to it, and whatever happens, happens.”