Leipheimer maintains lead on long, rainy day

With unrelenting rain, a bone-chilling headwind and a top cyclist knocked out of the race by hypothermia, Mother Nature proved herself the fiercest competitor in the Amgen Tour of California’s epic race from Seaside to San Luis Obispo on Thursday.

The 135-mile trek took nearly 7½ hours to complete, making it the longest stage in the three-year history of the Tour. In the end, it was Canadian Dominique Rollin of Toyota-United who crossed the umbrella-packed Stage 4 finish line first, with High Road’s George Hincapie and Sanier Duval-Scott’s Iker Camano in hot pursuit.

“At 10 kilometers [from the finish line], I knew they wouldn’t catch me and I started smiling,” said Rollin, who clocked in at 6 hours, 56 minutes, 8 seconds — 18 seconds in front of Hincapie and Camano.

His face red and eyes swollen from the cold, the 25-year-old Rollin described the race in a single word — brutal. Though he detests riding in driving rain, “the worse it is, the better I am,” he admitted.

Rollin’s dramatic Stage 4 win failed to shake up the order of the overall standings. Astana team member and 2007 Tour of California winner Levi Leipheimer remains at the top of the heap with an overall time of 20 hours, 22 minutes, 6 seconds. He remains 13 seconds ahead of Swiss rider Fabian Cancellara of CSC and 15 seconds ahead of Dutch cyclist Robert Gesink of Rabobank.

Leipheimer — who finished 16th in the stage, 2:28 behind Rollin — said Thursday’s conditions made for one of the worst rides in history.

“I guess we’ve had this coming since it’s been two years of beautiful weather, so it’s like having three bad days rolled into one today … probably inthe top three worst days I’ve ever had on a bike,” he said.

Fifteen riders abandoned the race due to the harsh conditions, including BMC’s Jackson Stewart, who would have taken over the King of the Mountain jersey. Stewart dropped out of the race at the 100-mile mark suffering from hypothermia. He recovered after being warmed up by an ambulance crew. The KOM jersey went instead to Stewart’s teammate Scott Nydam.

“I’m sure that was a soul-searching moment for him,” BMC manager Gavin Chilcot said.

Today’s individual time trial will likely change the overall results, Chilcot said. Who comes out on top today in Solvang will depend on who can recover quickly after Wednesday’s grueling hills and Thursday’s miserable weather.

Leipheimer said he was feeling confident Thursday, even after the tough ride.

“In this kind of condition, everyone feels the same,” he said. “What can you say after riding seven cold hours in the freezing rain? But I did my best to take care of myself and I’ll do my best tomorrow.”

tbarak@examiner.com

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