The racing continued right until the end of another great day at the Tour of California when the dust had settled, Frank Schleck had the stage win and Levi Leipheimer was once again the 'King of California' winning the Tour of California for the third year in a row.
Everything was still in play at the start of today's stage with all the main jerseys: general classification, king of the mountains, and sprint all up for grabs, and this stage had something for everyone – it was long enough (96.8 miles) so plenty of attacking opportunities, and it was far from flat – in fact it went over the highest point in the race's history, the hors category Palomar Mountain, which takes 11.7 miles, and 21 hairpins to climb to 5,123ft.
Early on it seemed like the Astana team were out of gas and by the climb of Palomar mountain Leipheimer was out on his own separated from the rest of the Astana riders. However, rumours of their demise prove unfounded and before the chasers reached the top they are back supporting their man.
The Palomar at a little after the mid-point of the stage is proves to be the pivotal point of the race up until this point a nine man break has been off the front for around 20 miles, although it hasn't always been the same nine men – although it has always seemed to contain one or other of the Schleck brothers with the early running being done by Andy at one point Mark Cavendish figured though he paid for it later when he struggled to keep contact with the peloton (he finished safely to win the sprint competition). Astana regrouped climbing the Palomar and their relentless pace takes its toll on the breakaway riders.
When the break goes over the top at Palomar the gap is down to 50 seconds. The nine man break is still ahead, even though it hasn't stayed the same nine men and has itself seen an attack off the front from Franck Schleck of Saxobank who opens up a gap on the descent which is treacherous in places from meltwater washing out over the road – Schleck wears his race number (13) upside down to reverse the luck. The rest of the break take things more carefully on the way down.
The one man break quickly becomes four: Glen Chadwick (RRC), Vincenzo Nibali (LIQ), Frank Schleck (SAX) and Bauke Mollema (RAB) are the break. They briefly stretch their lead to over a minute before Astana, lead by Lance Armstrong, cranks up the tempo of the chasing pack as their lead dwindles, Chadwick took his chance to jump away and descend the penultimate lump of the race solo – he quickly built a 1:10sec lead on the chasing peloton and 12 sec ahead of the rest of the break, but he's not on his own for long as on the run in to the final climb the three chasers catch him. Then Schleck and Niballi attack while Chadwick is absorbed by the chasing pack which climbs the Cole Grade climb at a fierce pace set by Astana and Armstrong in particular in a succesful attempt to pre-empt any attacks by Columbia Highroad and Garmin Slipstream for Zabriskie and Rogers – the strategy works.
Highroad and Slipstream do eventually take on the chase themselves but they've run out of road and with the race well inside the last 10Km this is more about setting up their sprinters rather than unseating Leipheimer from the top of the GC. For the final gallop in a group of 31 riders containing all the main players and their support riders attempted to chase down Schleck and Nibali who with 3Km to go were still 50 seconds to the good. With every turn of the pedals it becomes clear they are not going to be caught.
On the final turn Nibali has the advantage, but Schleck has saved something for one last burst and he takes the stage for Saxo Bank – he deserves it for his fearless descent of Palomar Mountain and his constant attacking. Less than a minute later George Hincapie (THR) beats Rory Sutherland (Ouch) to fourth place.
However the day, and the week belongs to Levi Leipheimer who delivers the Tour of California 'threepeat' so many had expected with a masterful display of riding from himself and his team – notably that man Armstrong.
Top 10 ToC Stage 7
1 Fränk Schleck (Lux) Team Saxo Bank 3.48.39 (41.334 km/h)
2 Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Liquigas 0.02
3 George Hincapie (USA) Team Columbia - Highroad 0.40
4 Rory Sutherland (Aus) OUCH Presented By Maxxis
5 Grischa Niermann (Ger) Rabobank
6 José Luis Rubiera (Spa) Astana
7 Yaroslav Popovych (Ukr) Astana
8 Jens Voigt (Ger) Team Saxo Bank
9 Levi Leipheimer (USA) Astana
10 Hubert Dupont (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale
Top 10 General Classification ToC after stage 8 (Final)
1 Levi Leipheimer (USA) Astana 31.28.21
2 David Zabriskie (USA) Garmin - Slipstream 0.36
3 Michael Rogers (Aus) Team Columbia - Highroad 0.45
4 Jens Voigt (Ger) Team Saxo Bank 1.10
5 Thomas Lövkvist (Swe) Team Columbia - Highroad 1.29
6 Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Liquigas 1.37
7 Lance Armstrong (USA) Astana 1.46
8 Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank 1.54
9 Thomas Danielson (USA) Garmin - Slipstream 2.24
10 José Luis Rubiera (Spa) Astana 2.48
Top 10 Toc Final Sprint Classification
1 Mark Cavendish (GBr) Team Columbia - Highroad 36 pts
2 Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Liquigas 22
3 Fränk Schleck (Lux) Team Saxo Bank 19
4 Pieter Weening (Ned) Rabobank 18
5 Tyler Farrar (USA) Garmin - Slipstream 16
6 Rinaldo Nocentini (Ita) AG2R La Mondiale 15
7 Thomas Peterson (USA) Garmin - Slipstream 15
8 Markus Zberg (Swi) BMC Racing Team 15
9 Martin Elmiger (Swi) AG2R La Mondiale 15
10 Levi Leipheimer (USA) Astana 14
Top 10 Toc Final Mountain Classification
1 Jason Mccartney (USA) Team Saxo Bank 39 pts
2 Tyler Hamilton (USA) Rock Racing 22
3 Serge Pauwels (Bel) Cervélo TestTeam 21
4 Levi Leipheimer (USA) Astana 20
5 Bauke Mollema (Ned) Rabobank 15
6 Jens Voigt (Ger) Team Saxo Bank 12
7 Timothy Johnson (USA) OUCH Presented By Maxxis 10
8 Fränk Schleck (Lux) Team Saxo Bank 9
9 Steven Cozza (USA) Garmin - Slipstream 9
10 Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank 8
Tony has been editing cycling magazines and websites since 1997 starting out as production editor and then deputy editor of Total Bike, acting editor of Total Mountain Bike and then seven years as editor of Cycling Plus. He launched his first cycling website - the Cycling Plus Forum at the turn of the century. In 2006 he left C+ to head up the launch team for Bike Radar which he edited until 2008, when he co-launched the multi-award winning road.cc - which he continues to edit today. His favourite ride is his ‘commute’ - which he does most days inc weekends and he’s been cycle-commuting since 1994. His favourite bikes are titanium and have disc brakes.