U.S. riders sit tight on Tour

Nocentini wins seventh stage; Leipheimer still overall leader

02/22/2009 3:03 AM

02/22/2009 3:07 AM

PASADENA -- Levi Leipheimer is usually cast in the role of domestique, sacrificing his individual performance to help a teammate. This time, Lance Armstrong is playing that part and Leipheimer is the star.

But the American teammates were minor players during the Tour of California on Saturday.

Rinaldo Nocentini of Italy lunged ahead of New Zealand's Hayden Roulston at the finish line to win Stage 7.

Leipheimer of Astana retained his overall lead while finishing 18th in the 88.9-mile leg from Santa Clarita to Pasadena's historic Rose Bowl stadium.

Nocentini of AG2R La Mondiale won by less than a bike length, finishing in 3 hours, 24.43 seconds. Rabobank's Pieter Weening of the Netherlands was third in the three-man sprint to the finish.

"The mountains were hard for me. I crashed on the second day," Nocentini said in French through a translator. "I focused more on the stage win and the victory was very, very important."

Armstrong, who began a comeback last month, finished 44th -- a gap of 2:19 behind the leaders -- as he rode in support of Leipheimer, his Astana teammate. The seven-time Tour de France winner remained sixth overall.

"The guys were so solid today. Like a machine on the circuits," Leipheimer wrote on his Twitter feed after the race. "The crowds were nothing short of amazing. Thanks to you all for coming out. The peloton was psyched,"

Armstrong wrote on his Twitter feed. He didn't talk with reporters while signing autographs before getting into a car and leaving.

Armstrong took a brief break for a wheel change on Angeles Crest Highway and made his way through the trailing cars to get back to the peloton.

BMC Racing's Markus Zberg of Switzerland was fourth, 7 seconds behind Nocentini, Roulston and Weening. Nocentini's teammate, Martin Elmiger of Switzerland, was fifth.

American George Hincapie of Columbia-Highroad won the cold, rainy Pasadena stage last year, when it was the finale for the tour. He was seventh Saturday, one spot behind countryman Chris Baldwin of Rock Racing.

"Some hellacious transfers in this race. Bummed ghincapie didn't get the "w" today, he looked strong," Armstrong wrote.

American Christian Vande Velde of Garmin-Slipstream was ninth.

Leipheimer completed his fifth day as the tour's overall leader, with a time of 27 hours, 39 minutes, 2 seconds -- 36 seconds ahead of American David Zabriskie of Garmin-Slipstream. Aussie Michael Rogers of Columbia-Highroad was third, followed by German Jens Voigt of Saxo Bank and Swede Thomas Lovkvist of Columbia-Highroad.

There was no change among the top nine positions Saturday.

Italian Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas moved into 10th, replacing Spain's Francisco Mancebo, who crashed.

American Floyd Landis, on the comeback trail like Armstrong, was 67th Saturday and stood 32nd overall.

Landis was stripped of his 2006 Tour de France victory following a doping scandal that resulted in a two-year ban and protracted court fight.

"I've missed a lot about racing and never really did it because I wanted a lot of attention. I like bicycle racing for the challenge of it," he said at his first news conference since returning. "It's certainly touching to have so many people out there cheering for us, not just me. To see that in the U.S. and this close to home is very satisfying."

The race concludes today with Stage 8, a 96.8-mile ride from Rancho Bernardo to Escondido.

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