Levi Leipheimer put his foot down and stamped his authority on the 2009 Amgen Tour of California with a well-timed attacked on what was the closest thing to a mountain top finish in the history of the race. The defending champion took the overall lead from Rock Racing's Francisco Mancebo, who trailed in more than a minute behind Stage 2 winner Tom Peterson (Garmin-Slipstream) and Leipheimer.
Leipheimer put in a massive attack at the base of the final climb with 17 miles to go, and slowly picked off the remnants of the day's early breakaway. He picked up Peterson just before the top of the climb, and the young American held fast to the wheel of the Astana rider as they crested the mountain and made their way down the fast, technical descent into Santa Cruz.
With Leipheimer more concerned about nabbing the yellow jersey over the stage win, he pulled the entire way to the line, giving Peterson free reign to sprint for the stage win.
Levi Leipheimer (R) leads Thomas Peterson into Santa Cruz
"The weather has been nasty the last couple of days and it really changes the race," said Leipheimer after the stage. As the race approached the final climb, he decided to make his move. "I thought I better go because I didn't want to freeze up. I felt great, and I told Popovych 'I feel great, let's go!' I couldn't wait any longer, I had to go."
Leipheimer had empathy for Mancebo, who could not follow the acceleration on the final climb and struggled in with a third chase group.
"Mancebo did a big effort yesterday, and we figured he was going to be paying for it today, so we had that to our advantage," Leipheimer said. "We're bike racers, we're not machines."
How the race unfolded
The 186km stage from Sausalito to Santa Cruz began in dismal conditions as a brutal winter storm buffetted the riders with heavy rain and strong winds. After passing over the Golden Gate Bridge, the riders sped through the streets of San Francisco where the break of the day began to take shape.
A group of 10 riders coalesced from a number of early attacks, and enjoyed a maximum five minute advantage on the soggy peloton. Jason Mccartney (Team Saxo Bank), Steven Cozza, Thomas Peterson (Garmin - Slipstream), Carlos Barredo (Quick Step), Stef Clement, Grischa Niermann (Rabobank), Markus Zberg (BMC Racing Team), Cameron Evans (OUCH p/b Maxxis), Ben Jacques-Maynes (Bissell Pro Cycling) and Valeriy Kobzarenko (Team Type 1).
Garmin's Thomas Peterson celebrates in Santa Cruz
As the race began the steep climb on Bonny Doon Road, the seond KOM of the day, Barredo attacked the break and gained a big lead over Peterson and McCartney who were in pursuit. But the Spaniard from Quick Step could not hold onto his effort, and was first dropped by Peterson and McCartney and then passed by Leipheimer as he motored his way up to the front of the race.
The chasing peloton split up the climb, with the strong Astana team well represented in a first chase group which came across the line just 20 seconds behind Peterson and Leipheimer. Michael Rogers (Columbia-High Road) led the group across the line.