Leipheimer wins 3rd straight Tour title

February 22, 2009 

ESCONDIDO -- The climb up a snowcapped mountain during the final stage certainly gave the Tour of California a European feel, as well as the spectators dressed in an array of costumes from a devil to an overweight guy wearing only a lime-green thong.

So did the presence of seven-time Tour de France Lance Armstrong, although his role this time was simply as a teammate.

With a boost from Armstrong and a tough mountain to climb, Levi Leipheimer won his third consecutive Tour of California on Sunday.

It was somewhat of an anticlimactic finish, considering Leipheimer had taken over the lead in the nine-day race last Monday and never gave it up.

"It's the sweetest victory of the three," Leipheimer said. "It's hard to describe. I mean, to keep a streak going like that, it just becomes so difficult.

"I told Lance this week that I don't know how the hell he won seven times in the Tour de France. I've got a lot of respect for that because the pressure builds, the expectations are higher and you can't get second place because that's losing."

Leipheimer was ninth in the final stage and finished with an overall time of 31 hours, 28 minutes, 21 seconds. His winning margin was 36 seconds over David Zabriskie of Garmin-Slipstream. He came into Sunday's eighth stage with the same margin over Zabriskie.

Armstrong, who began a comeback last month, spent this race in support of Leipheimer, his Astana teammate. The seven-time Tour de France winner finished 31st in Sunday's stage and seventh overall, 1 minute, 46 seconds behind Leipheimer.

"It was a hell of a good time," Armstrong said.

Armstrong said he enjoyed the role of supporting his teammate.

"Nobody came in here with any other expectation than riding for Levi," he said.

Armstrong has said the priority of his comeback is to spread the message of the fight against cancer more than to win his eighth Tour de France in June or his first Giro d'Italia.

But two stage races into his comeback, he said he feels in pretty good shape.

"I think overall we're happy with where we are," Armstrong said. "If you compare Feb. 22 to any other year, we're well ahead of that.

"Obviously to win the Tour you have to be as strong as possible and as light as possible. I don't necessarily need to get that much stronger but I have to get lighter. Three and half years away of not watching every gram of food you put in your body and the amount of wine you consume takes its toll, so you've got to get back into it."

Third place overall went to Michael Rogers of Team Columbia-High Road, who was 45 seconds behind Leipheimer.

The Tour of California, which rolled into Modesto for the conclusion of Tuesday's Stage 3 and began Stage 4 in Merced, visited San Diego County for the first time Sunday. The 96.8-mile final stage from Rancho Bernardo to Escondido featured a gut-busting ride up snowcapped Palomar Mountain, where the cyclists reached the 5,123-foot level on a two-lane highway with 21 switchbacks.

Dozens of spectators tried to run alongside the riders near the top, including a man in a University of Montana jersey who wore a football helmet decorated with antlers.

Leipheimer grew up in Butte, Mont.

He and Armstrong said it was a tough climb.

"With the speed we went up and the riders we were surrounded with, I had to remind myself it was California in February, because it felt like the Alps in July," Leipheimer said.

Frank Schleck of Team Saxo Bank won the eighth stage in 3:48:39. Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas was second and George Hincapie of Team Columbia-High Road was third.

Floyd Landis finished 29th in Sunday's stage and 23rd overall in his first race back since being stripped of his 2006 Tour de France title after testing positive for synthetic testosterone. Landis was the inaugural Tour of California winner in 2006.

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