Gila 1: Leipheimer takes climber's stage

21-year-old Peter Stetina flexes muscles for 2nd

American road racer Levi Leipheimer (Mellow Johnny's) won the 151km first stage of the 23rd SRAM Tour of the Gila from Silver City to Mogollon Wednesday.

Trailing 49 seconds behind was Peter Stetina (Felt-Holowesko Partners), a 21-year-old from Boulder, Colorado.

Leipheimer's Mellow Johnny's teammate Lance Armstrong finished eighth, 1:40 behind the three-time Tour of California winner.

With the start of Giro d'Italia just ten days away, Leipheimer is clearly doing more than a tune-up for Italy. Leipheimer sprang from the pack on the final climb to Fort Bayard.

“As we only knew since yesterday that we would participate here, we started with small ambitions, but when you feel good and you have a winner’s mentality, it is difficult to stay quiet in the peloton,” Leipheimer said. “I like to win and Lance motivated me to jump away on the final climb."

With the dramatic backdrop of the southwest desert of New Mexico playing out before the riders, Armstrong and teammate Chris Horner made their return to racing after accidents in March took them from the racing peloton.  

Once the three-mile final climb pitched up Armstrong and Leipheimer lead five others away from the field, including Baldwin, Stetina and Rory Sutherland (OUCH). Armstrong led Leipheimer up the climb before the Tour of Castilla y León winner Leipheimer launched with two miles to go and took the win.

Horner finished 35th on the day, 3:40 back. Other notable finishers included American Floyd Landis, in 52nd place, 4:26 behind Leipheimer.

"I have no team here to control the race for me, but I will try to defend this nice red leader’s jersey,” Leipheimer added, after logging after his sixth victory of the 2009 season.

Thursday's Stage 2 is the Inner Loop Road Race, a 128km event that starts and finishes in Fort Bayard Medical Centre.

For more information, visit Cyclingnews.com.

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