California 7: Hincapie wins, Leipheimer golden again

Leipheimer takes 2008 title

After Mark Cavendish's penalty cost High Road a stage win yesterday, the team was more motivated than ever to get a win in its new home of California. 

With only one stage left, it was do-or-die on the tough run over the San Gabriel mountains into the finish at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. Team captain George Hincapie was not to be denied, catching solo attacker Tom Zirbel (Bissell Pro Cycling) with three others and then out-sprinting them for the win. Levi Leipheimer retained the golden leader's jersey to win the race for the second year in a row.

"As soon as we came onto the circuit, it was really hard," said Hincapie. "A lot of people were attacking and it seemed like most of the others put the responsibility on me to chase everything down. I decided at that point that even if I wasn't fresh at the end, I was going to try to keep it together no matter what. Peiper was on the radio telling me that it was my responsibility and I knew that Rory [Sutherland] and Jason [McCartney] were the strongest guys. I figured if I kept them in check and kept my eye on Tom Zirbel's gap than I had a chance.

"The last 30 kilometres were really difficult and it just happened to work out for me," Hincapie continued. "Today was cold, not as cold as Thursday. But as soon as we got onto the circuits it was really aggressive and we warmed up really quick."

Director sportif Rolf Aldag said that the mood within the team after yesterday's issues, one of redemption, was led by Cavendish. "Cavendish had the feeling that nothing could go wrong today," said Aldag. "I think that went around the team really quickly was that we would show them we can win."

Astana's Levi Leipheimer rode into Pasadena on the back of his team's train, which had assembled at the front of the peloton to keep him safe as the skies opened up.

"This race was more special," said Leipheimer. "The theme of this race was the calibre of the peloton and the amount of stars we had in the race. That is what really makes the race so great. Its people like Cipollini, Millar, Vande Velde, Cancellara, Bettini, Boonen, Freire...the list goes on. We had all the stars in the race and for me to win it is unbelievable.

"I told Fabian after the time trial it was so great for me and my team Astana is because the competition is so great - you're only as good as your competitors," he added. "I think the peloton really made this race a special edition."

Leipheimer had a lot of thank yous for his team-mates as well, particularly because of this year's weather conditions. "They did an amazing amount of work and they were upfront in the most miserable, horrific conditions for miles and miles and hours and hours," he said. "That's a job that no one every really wants to do but they did it and they did it well. They proved that they are strong and we proved that Astana is one the best teams in the world."

The Bissell team's Zirbel made the most aggressive move on the day, counter-attacking the day's long breakaway while entering the finishing circuits and keeping the remnants at bay for more than four entire laps of 7.2km each. "I saw an opportunity with the break - everyone was looking at each other and I took advantage," a understandably tired Zirbel managed to tell Cyclingnews after the stage. "I was kinda hoping someone would go with me! But once I had the gap I just went into time trial mode. I thought it would last for two laps, so I just figured the end of my race was in two laps. Then I got another lap! And so I just started taking it one lap at a time."

"I lasted longer than I thought I would and then I just kept thinking about stage four, when Rollin took it to the line and sprinters' teams screw it up sometimes," he added. "It was an eternity - I heard 15 and 10 [seconds] - Glenn just kept telling me to keep on it. I was just like, 'keep on top - keep on top'. But the finish line didn't come soon enough."

Zirbel was caught by Hincapie and Sutherland, and immediately dropped - mostly because he had such tunnel vision he never saw the catch coming. "I didn't know they were that close and I let a gap open up, but I was able to get back on. Once they attacked [in the end] I had no acceleration," he said.

For the latest stage 7 report from Cyclingnews.com's Mark Zalewski, click here. To read the Cyclingnews.com live race report transcript by Laura Weislo, with reporting from Mark Zalewski and Kirsten Robbins, click here. To read something clever from Procycling's Daniel Friebe in Pasadena, click here.

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