Stage 6: Santa Barbara to Santa Clarita, 175km/105.7mi

- by Cathy Mehl

With only two stages remaining to secure his second win in the Amgen Tour of California, Team Astana's Levi Leipheimer put his entire team on the front of the peloton to ride tempo and control the ambitions of those still eager to wrestle the leader's jersey off his back. But there were no serious threats to Leipheimer's hold on the lead and he begins the 7th and final stage to the Rose Bowl on Sunday fully in comment of this year's race.

Starting the day along the beachfront boulevard in Santa Barbara, a diminishing peloton of 104 riders began the ride from the coastal city and traveled inland to Santa Clarita, a city north of Los Angeles known as the home of Six Flags Magic Mountain and enough roller coasters to inspire any enthusiasts of the scream machines. It was another day of sickness and abandons as an additional 13 riders dropped out during the stage, including Team Astana's Russian champion Vladimir Gusev who crashed and was taken by ambulance to the hospital with a broken collarbone. Riding under cloudy skies with temperatures in the mid-50s the peloton faced a stiff breeze throughout the day.

With Astana Cycling Team riding tempo up front and keeping a watchful eye, immediate attacks went off the front but were quickly caught until the second KOM when a break of six riders was allowed to stay away and included Rory Sutherland (Health Net) and David Canada (Saunier Duval-Scott). Happy with the make-up of the group, Team Astana backed off the pace and let the gap grow to almost seven minutes. Team Astana remained in charge until the teams of High Road, Quick Step and Rabobank joined in the work and began to bring back the break.

Although the break continued to work well together with each rotation they began to tire noticeably and entered the first of three closing circuits with a slim lead of two minutes. At 4km to go Mark Cavendish (Team High Road), Freddy Rodriquez and Mario Cipollini (Rock Racing) all went down but eventually Cavendish and Super Mario made it back to the front. Former world time trial champion David Millar attacked and took off in full TT mode in an effort to seal the win and gain the bonus of ten seconds. But Levi was expecting such a move and immediately moved Team Astana to the front and shut down the move as the teams of the sprinters swamped the front of the race and headed for the line.

Cavendish held his line on the left side of the course and crossed with his fingers pointing skyward, followed by Brazil's Luciano Pagliarini (Saunier Duval-Prodir) and Juan Jose Haedo (Team CSC). However an immediate convening of the UCI race commissaires verified that Cavendish's return to the peloton after his crash near the 4km mark was aided by a car, and he was penalized 20 seconds and relegated to the back of the lead group, thus knocking him off the podium. Pagliarini moved up to first, Haedo assumed second position, and current world champion Paolo Bettini (Quick Step) took over on third, rounding out an international podium for the sixth stage. During the press conference after the stage Pagliarini noted that he prefers to win "with his hands up" instead of with a UCI ruling, so he was "happy, but not so happy."

There was no change on GC and Levi retained the yellow jersey with a 49 second advantage over Millar with Christian Vande Velde (Slipstream) holding for third. The 7th and final stage involves both point-to-point and circuit racing Sunday as the Amgen Tour of California comes to a close at the world famous Rose Bowl in Pasadena. Protecting a race lead is not new to those on Team Astana and despite being one man down they will do the work to preserve and protect the lead Leipheimer so solidly built in Friday's time trial.

"I think the team is great. They rode very well today," commented Leipheimer in the press conference. "They were very attentive in the beginning and we got the right group away. We figured the sprinters teams would help close the gap. The team is doing a lot of work but they are doing it to see this thing through to the end."

Speaking about the final stage with a newly added final climb, Leipheimer remarked, "I think we've probably shown that we have the best team for the mountains in the stage to San Jose. That's given us a lot of confidence. Chechu Rubiera is riding phenomenal. I feel confident in the team to control it and to get to the circuits and just pay attention to what's going on."

Continuing, he added, "These guys have done this before. These guys have finished multiple Grand Tours and they've spent time on the front, so they have the experience and they have the strength. They can definitely do it."

Special notice: Severe weather on Sunday may affect the race schedule and course; officials recommend checking with the official website before heading to the climb of Millcreek Summit, as flash flood warnings are possible.

Beyond the Finish Line: Painted Cave: this sandstone cave houses religious drawings by Chumash Native Americans, as well as likenesses of coastal fishermen that date back to the 1600s. Located above Santa Barbara in a steep canyon, the site preserves these fine examples of Native American art on the side walls of the rock shelter. And I happen to live in the adjacent community of the same name!

Stage 6 Results
1 Luciano Andr Pagliarini Mendonca (Bra) Saunier Duval-Scott 4.18.31 (40.616 km/h)
2 Juan Jose Haedo (Arg) Team CSC
3 Paolo Bettini (Ita) Quick Step
4 Gerald Ciolek (Ger) High Road
5 Oscar Freire Gomez (Spa) Rabobank
6 Dominique Rollin (Can) Toyota - United Pro Cycling Team
7 Alexander Candelario (USA) Kelly Benefit Strategies / Medifast
8 Markus Zberg (Swi) Gerolsteiner
9 Danilo Wyss (Swi) BMC Racing Team
10 Pedro Horrillo Munoz (Spa) Rabobank

20 Levi Leipheimer (USA)
31 Christopher Horner (USA)
40 Aaron Kemps (Aus)
44 Jani Brajkovic (Slo)
64 Sergey Ivanov (Rus)
68 Andrey Mizurov (Kaz)
77 Jos Luis Rubiera Vigil (Spa) 0.43

General Classification after stage 6
1 Levi Leipheimer (USA) Astana 25.33.23
2 David Millar (GBr) Slipstream 0.49
3 Christian Vandevelde (USA) 1.08
4 Fabian Cancellara (Swi) Team CSC 1.18
5 Gustav Larsson (Swe) Team CSC 1.19
6 David Zabriskie (USA) Slipstream 1.36
7 Christopher Horner (USA) Astana 2.07
8 Jurgen Vandewalle (Bel) Quick Step 2.11
9 Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank 2.18
10 Alexandre Moos (Swi) BMC Racing Team 2.27
11 Thomas Peterson (USA) Slipstream 2.58

23 Jani Brajkovic (Slo) Astana 9.58
33 Jos Luis Rubiera Vigil (Spa) Astana 18.21
45 Andrey Mizurov (Kaz) Astana 28.29
55 Aaron Kemps (Aus) Astana 32.44
73 Sergey Ivanov (Rus) Astana 38.17

Results provided by www.cyclingnews.com