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Rogers holds off Leipheimer, Zabriskie, wins Amgen Tour of California

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The Amgen Tour of California finished with a Stage 8 that is harmlessly called a circuit race, 83.5 miles of riding in a circle through Thousand Oaks, Westlake Village and Agoura Hills. Up and down Mullholland Highway between Cornell Road and Encinal Canyon, punishing laps that, coming at the end of eight days of hard stage racing, caused some big names such as Tom Danielson and Fabian Cancellara to abandon rather than finishing. It is, after all, a hard summer of racing still to come.

The day's riding wasn't harmless though.

All day there was American veteran George Hincapie, a new member of a new team, BMC Racing, at the front with the pace-setting group, riding hard miles into swirling winds. Crowds at many of the best viewing points, including on Mulholland, rivaled the very best in Europe, according to Versus broadcaster Paul Sherwen.

But in the last half mile, when Hincapie made his move to the front, he was followed and passed by Canadian Ryder Hesjedal of the Garmin-Transitions team to take the stage win. HTC-Columbia's Michael Rogers fended off a half dozen attacks on the final climb by three-time defending champion Levi Leipheimer of Team RadioShack and Garmin-Transitions' Dave Zabriskie to win the overall title. Rogers, a 30-year-old from Australia, won his first Tour of California, with Zabriskie second for the second year in a row and Leipheimer finishing third.

One fan waved a "Thousand Aches" sign, which seemed an appropriate renaming of the city for the cyclists who were going to finish this tour that had begun May 16 in Nevada City and has been contested through cold rain in Santa Rosa and a rousing controversy after Floyd Landis, who had won the first-ever Tour of California, had leaked a series of e-mails in which he charged Team RadioShack riders Lance Armstrong, Leipheimer, Zabriskie and Hincapie of participating in unsanctioned performance-enhancing doping at times before 2006.

After Landis made a curiously silent appearance Saturday in a hospitality tent at the time-trial finish line in downtown Los Angeles and attracted even more attention away from the racing, Sunday's final stage went on without the doping drama.

The little in-race stories included watching how the California-based HTC Columbia team worked to defend the yellow leader jersey worn by Rogers; whether the popular Hincapie could grab the final stage win and whether Zabriskie's Garmin-Transitions team or Leipheimer and RadioShack (minus Armstrong who had crashed out Thursday) could make a dramatic comeback and win the race where he said, "If I don't win, I lose."

Whatever hope Leipheimer might have held out almost went away when he suffered a tire puncture with about 13 miles left in the stage. After a tire change and help getting back up to speed, Leipheimer suddenly stood up in the saddle and made a desperate attack during the final uphill section of the race.

For a moment Leipheimer lost Zabriskie, who was in second place overall. Rogers and his team quickly covered Leipheimer's move. Zabriskie also made two attacks on Rogers in the final eight miles, and Leipheimer made another. And then another. Rogers was riding unprotected. His teammates had either quit the race earlier (sprinters Mark Cavendish and Mark Renshaw) or couldn't keep up.

But when the final climbing was done, Rogers was still ahead of Leipheimer and Zabriskie and attention turned to who might win the stage. Hincapie, wearing red, white and blue indicative of him being the defending U.S. national road racing champion, was enveloped in cheers of the large crowd, but cheers weren't enough for him to hold off the rapidly closing Hesjedal.

-- Diane Pucin

Photo: Three-time defending champion Levi Leipheimer, left, and eventual 2010 winner Michael Rogers get ready for Sunday's Stage 8 in the Amgen Tour of California. Credit: Anthony Bolante / Reuters

 
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