MT. BALDY, CALIF. - Amid breathtaking vistas and challenging roads with continuous switchbacks leading to the top of Mt. Baldy (elevation 7,930 ft.), RadioShack teammates Levi Leipheimer (USA), three-time Amgen Tour of California champion, and Chris Horner (USA) crossed the Stage 7 finish line in first and second place respectively, thrilling fans with a picture-perfect victory. The second-place finish today will keep Horner in the Amgen Race Leader Jersey heading into the final stage of the race tomorrow. Leipheimer remains in second place overall and Tom Danielson (USA) of Team Garmin-Cervelo moves up to third.
"Our team was perfect today," said Leipheimer. "You don't get to experience that much in professional cycling. To experience a day where everyone clicks was incredible. There wasn't a lot of talking between us today because we knew exactly what each person on the team was doing; we didn't need a lot of communication today. The team had a solid performance and everyone did their jobs; it was just a really special and amazing day. The work they did really allowed me to win. There was never a threat, so I was able to ride for a stage win with Chris on my wheel. I really have to thank the boys for that."
Cheered on by the crowds of fans, many of whom braved the same route as the professional riders to get to the finish line, the cyclists dug deep and left it all out on the road for what is sure to be remembered as one of the most epic stages in the history of the race. An unforgiving route, after a neutral start in the town of Claremont, riders immediately began the ascent to Mt. Baldy, ultimately climbing more than 15,000 ft. over the 75.8-mile course.
"We hit the final part of Mt. Baldy with Dmitry (Muravyev) out in front, and he had done a lot the last seven to eight miles," said Horner. "He got us all the way through at the bottom of the hill and then we started the climb. Then, the young Matt Busche took over and he was very, very impressive. I cannot stress how impressive he was today. He is a year and a half pro and while his experience is very limited, his riding ability is really high. When we were down to maybe five riders in the field, Levi (Leipheimer) went up there and told him to punch it and he punched it one last time. From there it was hopping on the Levi train and riding it all the way to the line."
After an aggressive attack that was quickly reeled back, a 16-man group gained a small lead only 6.5 kilometers into the route. That group was quickly whittled down to only nine, comprised of Andrew Talansky (USA) of Team Garmin-Cervelo; Christopher Froome (GBR) of Sky Procycling; George Hincapie (USA) of BMC Racing Team; Francesco Bellotti (ITA) of Liquigas-Cannondale; Grischa Niermann (GER) of Rabobank Cycling Team; Alexander Efimkin (RUS) of Team Type 1-sanofi; Jonathan Patrick McCarty (USA) of Team Spidertech Powered By C10; Rob Britton (CAN) of Bissell Pro Cycling; and Ryder Hesjedal (CAN) of Team Garmin-Cervelo. With the first KOM of the day only five kilometers away, the group had a 30-second lead on the peloton.
With Team Garmin-Cervelo setting the pace in the break up the climb, the lead increased to two minutes after 22.5 kilometers of racing, and a gruppetto was formed approximately two minutes behind the field. Shortly after Froome dropped from the break, the race split into four groups on the road - an eight-man break, the first group of chasers led by Team RadioShack and then two more groups after that. The gruppetto was positioned approximately seven miles behind the break.
After the first Sprint competition, in which Bellotti took first, the break began climbing again with Hesjedal setting the tempo up front and Team RadioShack setting the pace in the main field. Leopard Trek soon joined the chase efforts and the peloton began to stretch, eventually leaving 50-60 riders in the field. As the field crossed the second KOM, McCarty once again took maximum points.
With the gruppetto 17 minutes and 30 seconds off the pace, and 40 riders left in the left in the main field, U.S. Champion Ben King (USA) continued to work hard for teammates Horner and Leipheimer. With the break's lead down to 45 seconds, Talansky continued to set the pace of the seven-man group at the front as they approached the finish at the top of Mt. Baldy. In addition to Talansky, the break consisted of George Hincapie (USA) of BMC Racing Team, Hesjedal, Bellotti, Niermann, Efimkin and Britton. Nearing the start of the Mt. Baldy climb, Matt Busche (USA) began to set a hard tempo for teammates Horner and Leipheimer, who were second and third in line in the chase group.
Heading uphill, the break split completely apart, leaving only Efimkin in the lead with five kilometers of racing ahead. Soon a group of five, including Horner, Busche, Leipheimer, Laurens Ten Dam (NED) of Rabobank Cycling Team and Andy Schleck (LUX) of Leopard Trek, began closing in. Efimkin was caught with 2.9 kilometers to go.
With two kilometers to go, Horner and Leipheimer took the lead, both out of the saddle, using every ounce of energy to continue the uphill climb. Gaining speed as they neared the finish line, Leipheimer crossed first, reaching his hands in the air and high-fiving teammate Horner as they finished one of the most brutal stages in the history of the Amgen Tour of California.
After some courageous racing today, Horner remains in first place overall, followed by Leipheimer in second and Danielson in third.
"I really tried to ride my own tempo," said Danielson. "When those guys went (Leipheimer and Horner), I knew other riders might blow up because of the altitude."
Efimkin (RUS) of Team Type 1-sanofi was awarded the Amgen's Breakaway from Cancer® Most Courageous Rider Jersey for his relentless riding in the breakaway throughout the day. All of the other race jerseys remained unchanged with Horner in the Amgen Race Leader Jersey; Peter Sagan (SVK) of Liquigas-Cannondale in the Herbalife Sprint Jersey; McCarty (USA) in the California Travel & Tourism King of the Mountains (KOM) Jersey; and Tejay Van Garderen (USA) of Rabobank Cycling Team in the Rabobank Best Young Rider Jersey.
"Amgen is proud to be part of this amazingly successful race, which is helping advance the popularity of cycling in America while also helping increase awareness of the resources that are available to those affected by cancer," said Stuart Arbuckle, vice president and general manager, Amgen Oncology. "The Breakaway from Cancer nonprofit partners collectively offer people affected by cancer a broad range of support services complementing those provided by a patient's team of healthcare professionals."
Founded by Amgen in 2005 as a complementary component to its title sponsorship of the Amgen Tour of California, Breakaway from Cancer continues to raise awareness of the important resources available to people impacted by cancer - from prevention to survivorship.
As part of the today's race activities, Claremont resident and cancer survivor Edgar Reece fired the official start gun.
For access to resources or to learn more, visit www.breakawayfromcancer.com.
STAGE 8 TOMORROW:
Sunday, May 22 - Santa Clarita to Thousand Oaks (82.3 mi/132.4 km)
Start Time: Noon PT
Estimated Finish Time: 3 - 3:30 p.m. PT
The Amgen Tour of California returns to one of its favorite host cities for the start of the final stage of the 2011 race. Leaving Santa Clarita, the race will head out on a flat 13-mile stretch of Hwy 126. A left turn near Piru will work the riders toward the coast and to the base of the final KOM of the race, Balcolm Canyon, a wicked climb that is relatively short, but painfully steep. Cresting the summit, the race will then head through Moorpark and up the final climb on the Norwegian Grade. Next, the route will head downhill and enter the four-mile circuit as it passes the finish line in Thousand Oaks and begins the first of five flat and fast circuits.
The winner of the 2011 Amgen Tour of California will be crowned on the award stage in Thousand Oaks, the headquarter community of the race's title sponsor, Amgen. The winner will have survived the longest and most difficult stage race ever contested in the U.S.
Also as a part of tomorrow's festivities, Thousand Oaks cancer survivor Reine Wiley will be honored and celebrated at the final Breakaway Mile, a special one-mile walk that crosses the finish line to honor the millions of cancer survivors worldwide.
For full results, GPS data, course information, race play-by-play and more, please visit the official race website at www.amgentourofcalifornia.com.
In addition to the website, fans can view the race on the daily VERSUS broadcasts. Stage 7 will air live on VERSUS tomorrow at 2 p.m. PT.