Defending Champion Levi Leipheimer Wins Amgen Tour of California for Third Consecutive Year
After nine challenging and epic days of cycling through more than 750-miles of scenic California roads, and a thrilling fight to the finish, Levi Leipheimer (USA) of Team Astana was crowned champion of the 2009 Amgen Tour of California, solidifying a three-peat for the California resident. With a week-long total time of 31 hours, 28 minutes and 21 seconds, Leipheimer accepted the highly coveted title of race champion in front of massive cheering crowds in Escondido, which brought the race total to 2 million fans along the race route from Sacramento to Escondido. In a nine-day battle against the best field ever assembled to compete in the United States, which included Tour de France winners, Olympic medalists and World Champions, Frank Schleck (LUX) of Team Saxo Bank claimed the Stage 8 win.
“I’ve been trying to think about how to articulate this and it’s tough,” said Leipheimer. “To win it once, that was huge. To win it twice, that was almost a little bit of a surprise and almost felt like luck. But now, to have won the Amgen Tour of California three times, it’s the sweetest victory of all. I think we proved that we were the best team in the race. There is no question about that. It’s hard to describe, but to keep a streak like that going is difficult. I told Lance (Armstrong) that I don’t know how he won the Tour de France seven times in a row, because the pressure builds with each win. The expectations are higher. I think we proved that we were the best team in the race. There is no question about that."
On becomming a team leader, Leipheimer told Roadcycling.com that "It has been a long, hard learning process to become the best that I can be and become a team leader. When the Amgen Tour of California came about in 2006, I knew I had evolved into a rider that could win this race. I have always been motivated for this race. This year, it was awesome because the team was so strong that we didn’t even need a lot of direction. Everyone is so experienced that we all know what each other are thinking. The riders can see each other and know when to take it easy or when we need to go. It has been a long, hard road to get to this point. I’ve trained really hard and when I was pushing myself and suffering, I dreamt of moments like the climb on Bonny Doon where it’s a long way to the finish, the conditions are horrendous, but at the spur of the moment, you feel inspired and great and you just go for it. You know that you’re fully committed to pulling it off and grabbing the yellow jersey, and to have Lance working for you the entire way, it’s like a life-long dream for me."
David Zabriskie (USA) of Team Garmin-Slipstream finished in second place overall at 36 seconds behind Leipheimer, and Michael Rogers (AUS) of Team Columbia-Highroad finished third at 45 seconds behind.
In one of the most difficult stages of the 2009 race, the 156 kilometer/96.8-mile route from Rancho Bernardo to Escondido included one sprint and four King of the Mountain (KOM) climbs, including the ‘above categorization’ ascent of Palomar Mountain, the highest point ever reached in the Amgen Tour of California at 5,123 feet. The ascent unfolded over 11.7 miles and included 21 switchbacks at an average gradient of seven percent.
The Queen stage of the 2009 Amgen Tour of California began with an early breakaway of nine riders, which was split up a half hour later. Soon after, a second breakaway formed, which included Schleck and inaugural Amgen Tour of California winner Floyd Landis (USA) of Ouch Presented by Maxxis. Chased and eventually caught by the top-three riders in the general classification, Leipheimer, Rogers and Zabriskie, the breakaway included most of the top riders in the peloton.
Lined with fans, some of which had camped out for two nights to secure their spot to watch the cyclists compete in the final day of the race, Mount Palomar made the final stage of the race an extremely challenging course. Schleck opened up a gap on the descent, but was then joined by three additional riders to make a group of four. With Lance Armstrong (USA) of Astana setting a fast pace at the front of the field, the gap began to close. After riding in the breakaway for most of the day, Schleck battled Vincenzo Nibali (ITA) of Liquigas up to the finish line to take the final stage with the roar of cheering fans in Escondido in the background.
“The riding was furious today and I said, ‘I’m just going to go for it again’,” said Schleck. “On Palomar, that is where I attacked and got up to Andy (Schleck), and then he set a really hard pace. Really, for a guy like me, it took a big effort today for sure.”
Rogers stated that “I’m stoked to have finished third overall in this race. The caliber of the field is pretty much like the Tour de France; there are only a few teams missing. Everyone is here. Looking back at the time trial in Solvang, you’ve got five or six of the world’s best time trialists. It was a star-studded field for sure, so I’m very happy with my position.”
Zabriskie told Roadcycling.com that “Today’s stage included a lot of hills. I’ve done Palomar before, but it’s always a little easier when you’re not under pressure. The crowds were impressive. They were tripping over each other at the top and that made me a bit nervous, so I just kept my head up. But seriously, it was really nice to have them all along the course cheering. It looked like they were having a good time.”
Today’s stage brought a close to the competition for the Amgen Tour of California jerseys. The Amgen Leader Jersey was awarded to Leipheimer for the third consecutive year. In addition to winning the final stage of the race, Schleck claimed Amgen’s Breakaway from Cancer Most Courageous Rider Jersey. Mark Cavendish (GBR) of Team Columbia-Highroad retained the Herbalife Sprint Jersey and Rabobank’s Robert Gesink (NED) the Rabobank Best Young Rider Jersey. Jason McCartney (USA) of Saxo Bank held onto the climbing lead to take the California Travel & Tourism Commission King of the Mountain (KOM) Jersey. With a celebratory champagne fight on the awards stage, Astana claimed the overall team classification for the first time.