The winner of the last 3 Tours of California, Team RadioShack’s Levi Leipheimer, who is also the winner of its last 3 time trials in the city of Solvang, just missed his fourth victory in this year’s TT to Garmin-Cervélo’s David Zabriskie by 13 seconds. Levi looked very strong on the first parts of the course, in fact posting the best intermediate split, but couldn’t hold on to the pace over the back half of the 15-mile (24-kilometer) course on a warm clear day of rolling hills, climbs, false flats, twisting turns and absolutely beautiful scenery.
Levi left everything out there on the course and was uncharacteristically demonstrative after the finish; when he heard his finishing time, banging the handlebars with his fist and riding off without a word to the press. Later, when he regained his composure (and his breath), though very disappointed, he became once again the gracious gentleman we’ve all come to respect and admire, subjecting himself to all the post-race interviews – saying nothing but good things about the great ride that Zabriskie put in. Zabriskie, for his part set a new course record of 30:35 that might just stand for some time to come given the exceptional ride that he had and the course conditions.
Team RadioShack’s race leader, Chris Horner continued to add to his performances this week by posting a 6th place finish on the day, 51 seconds behind Zabriskie, but with plenty of time to spare to maintain his leader’s yellow jersey in this year’s 6th running of the Tour of California. Not well regarded in the cycling press for his individual time trial capabilities, Chris wanted to set the record straight in interviews the day before that he thought himself a pretty fair ITT rider when he needed to be. And on this day, in the leader’s yellow jersey, he evidently felt the need…for speed. He was so exhausted after his effort he fell to the ground and sat there for a while catching his breath and getting his heart rate back to human. (Side note; given Chris’ demeanor and perpetual smile, falling limp on the tarmac may be our [mere mortal’s] only clue that he’s put himself in the red).
Chris has ridden so many big races in support of other huge talents (Lance, Contador, Evans), that the press have been lulled into thinking he’s a surprise contender. The peloton knows better. When you see a huge talent sacrifice them self continually for others, doing things you literally can’t do, like fall back to the team car on a climb you’re struggling with, grab 6 bottles and climb back up the mountain to supply his designated captain with refreshment, you begin to wonder what his palmarès would’ve looked like had he been the recipient of that kind of super-domestique support over the course of his long career. Then again, the sport is crammed with what-ifs, and could-have-beens. Chris’s list of accomplishments doesn’t need crystal-ball-gazing help, he’s amassed a very large list of wins on his own. So it’s still surprising when people are flat-footed with his latest victory.
In any case, Chris laid down an impressive time against some of the best time trialists, not just in the US, but in the world, to ensure that he’d still be in the lead coming into the next challenging mountain stage in this race, which Zabriskie called one of the worst he’s faced in his career, the infamous climb up Mt Baldy.
It will be a tortuous day, with many attacks. All the big names will be trying to unseat Chris and Levi (who are now sitting one-two on the leader board) with every reserve they possess because it’s the last big mountain stage where damage can be done before Sunday’s finale. There will be pain, suffering, and fireworks aplenty. It will be fun to watch, but certainly much less so, to participate in.
As to the contenders’ hopes, all I can say is, good luck. I think this race is over. Team RadioShack wins. I know, a big boast, but here’s the thing. A great rider can beat one of these guys, perhaps, on a good day. But come on…beat both Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer on these final two days? Not in your dreams!
George Hurst, 21 May 2011