The best rider won the Tour of California yesterday. Put under pressure and briefly isolated on Palomar Mountain by his closest GC rivals Levi proved he had the legs and the will to cover all the moves. In truth he could have stayed with his Astana teammates who were never more than 30 seconds behind and they'd have taken back any advantage on the descent, but Leipheimer made it clear that he was the man... and everyone was racing for second place.
Astana once again showed they are the strongest stage-race team on the planet, finishing with all eight starters, something no other team could match. The addition of Lance Armstrong operating as a super domestique only added to the confidence, leadership and tactical superiority of Bruyneel's squad. Add Contador and Kloden to the mix and the Tour de France lineup is a juggernaut, regardless of which GC specialist is on best form.
On one of the few occasions yesterday when Craig Hummer wasn't talking on Versus, we actually got to hear how impressed Leipheimer was with Armstrong who really "put the pedal down on Cole Grade" snuffing out any lingering hope for Zabriskie or Rogers attacking one last time. The record fan turnout, in spite of the miserable early-stage weather, testifies to LA's drawing power and the very strong field. Throughout the week Lance was the perfect teammate. He left the spotlight to Levi, put in some monster work at the front, made himself far more accessible to rest of the peloton and genuinely seemed to enjoy every minute of his racing. As I mentioned in my Stage 3 post, that low-five exchange with Hincapie spoke volumes about his motivation and attitude.
Look for Levi to repay Armstrong's investment later this year at the Giro or the Tour. Personally, I'd love to see Lance add the Giro to his palmares and then have him reprise his super domestique role to get Contador his second Tour win (and maybe a mountain stage solo win). That would be sweet.
Floyd Landis was another feel good story for me. Whatever he did or didn't do in the past, he rode well and finished a respectable 23rd ahead of Andy Schleck, Christian Vandevelde, and Stuart O'Grady to name a few. I don't think he quite knew what to expect from his body or the crowd his first race back. Fans cheered him all the way. I'm glad he's back.
For me the best solo performance all week was Francisco Mancebo's Stage 1 victory on the rain-soaked streets of Santa Rosa. Eventually I hope the Tour of California dispenses with the Nascar-style finishes; they're not necessary. It was thrilling to see the Spaniard ultimately prevail after he was caught. Rock racing can be proud of his KOM efforts all week. I was really disappointed to see him go down in Stage 7 and have to leave the race.
Other highlights and notes: Dave Zabriskie looked great on Palomar. Up till now he's been a TT specialist... I thought he looked lighter and leaner, perhaps he has GC aspirations. The prize for best team kit goes to Cervelo Test Team. The black stands out and I really like the stylized accented é as wings. Rock racing's "Rocks not Dead" kit was the other stand out. Worst kit (ignoring the smaller teams)... Columbia High-Road. Lose the fake abs Bob. TV coverage on Versus got better as the week progressed but there's still too much filler... I would like to hear from Phil, Paul and Bob more.