SANTA ROSA, California (VN) — It didn’t take long for the mind games to begin at the Amgen Tour of California.
Prior to the race’s start, defending champion Chris Horner (RadioShack-Nissan) told NBC Sports Network that he wasn’t convinced that Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), who broke his leg on April 1, was incapable of mounting a GC battle, saying, “We all know Levi’s been playing a bit of possum. You don’t show up looking that lean and fit by laying around on the couch.”
It was a shot across the bow — or at least across the windshield of the Omega Pharma-Quick Step bus — that Horner will not underestimate the three-time California champion.
Just a few kilometers into the first stage, an eight-man group slipped away, and while the race’s GC contenders looked to each other to determine which team, or teams, might chase it back, the escape group’s gap stretched to over 11 minutes.
Just an hour into the opening stage of the race it was clear that this would be a week where the overall will be won, or lost, through a battle of both force and will.
Perhaps that’s because the 2011 Amgen Tour of California wasn’t the harmonious RadioShack one-two victory the team tried to project after Horner rode away from then-teammate Leipheimer on Sierra Road.
Horner came to California last year riding in support of Leipheimer, and with Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin) carrying a substantial lead at the base of Sierra Road, Horner had done his team duty to chase down Hesjedal and whittle the field down to nothing — all while providing a wheel for Leipheimer.
Once the RadioShack pair had caught Hesjedal, Horner kept on upping the pace in order to shed the Canadian. In the process he also dropped Leipheimer, who could only keep pace with Hesjedal, and was therefore stuck — he could not try to bridge to Horner, as he would simply be dragging the Garmin rider back up to his own teammate. Though the time trial and Mount Baldy were still to come,
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