Levi back on top

Defiance, teamwork and a nasty stomach virus all came into play Wednesday as Levi Leipheimer emerged as the race leader in the Amgen Tour of California.

Stage 3 of the race, a 103-mile trip from Modesto to San Jose, included a grueling 4,360-foot climb to the 35-degree summit of Mount Hamilton.

Leipheimer, who was the Tour’s 2007 winner, used his climbing skills to secure the coveted yellow jersey and now leads Swiss cyclist Fabian Cancellara of Team CSC by 13 seconds. Leipheimer’s overall time is 13 hours, 45 minutes and 30 seconds.

Tuesday’s race leader, 23-year-old Tyler Farrar, abandoned the race early after a stomach virus he had been battling since Tuesday morning finally felled him.

“Unfortunately, the terrain of the course was too much for him and he had to withdraw,” said Team

Slipstream-Chipotle physiologist Allen Lim. The flu-like illness has been traveling through the peloton. Farrar’s teammate Steven Cozza got sick Sunday in Palo Alto but has since recovered, Lim said.

Dutch rider Robert Gesink, 21, was the stage winner in 4 hours, 28 minutes, 29 seconds. The Rabobank team member and last year’s Best Young Rider at the Tour is also third place overall, 15 seconds behind.

Gesink and Leipheimer, 34, broke away from the peloton after Sierra Road on the outskirts of San Jose and worked together during the long run into downtown.

“We were both yelling and screaming at each other to ride faster to the finish line before the other guys,” Gesink said.

Leipheimer allowed Gesink to cross first, enabling the young rider to win the stage while Leipheimer claimed the yellow jersey. Belgium’s Jurgen Vandewalle of Quick Step was third, 19 seconds back.

“I predicted yesterday that he was going to be my ally today,” Leipheimer said. “We both worked together and we both got something out of it.”

Leipheimer said much of his motivation to secure the yellow jersey came from Tour de France officials’ Feb. 13 decision to exclude his team from the 2008 race due to past doping scandals. Leipheimer, who is new to team Astana, said he has been frustrated by inconsistent and vague explanations from Tour de France officials. The team’s strong performance in the Tour of California is in part because it has something to prove, he said.

“We’re not going to just hang our heads. We’re the best team in the world and we’re here to prove it. We’re going to answer with our legs and our overall racing style,” he said.

While Leipheimer’s strong comments followed the race, the drama started early as rider Kevin Lacombe of Kelly Benefit Strategies Medifast collided with the back of a support vehicle. Lacombe was taken to a local hospital, but was found to have no broken bones or lacerations, tour medical director Dr. Ramin Modabber said. Lacombe was released hours later.

tbarak@examiner.com

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