British sprint specialist Mark Cavendish edged Tom Boonen to win the fourth stage of the Tour of California on Wednesday as two-time defending champion Levi Leipheimer retained the
The 186.3km stage took the race from Merced through the Sierra Mountains, with the early going marked by a series of attempted breaks.
A three-man group finally escaped on a break that held up until the gap was erased in the closing kilometers and the sprinters surged to the fore.
Cavendish was able to secure the stage victory that had eluded him a day before as he beat Boonen by centimeters. Argentina’ Juan Jose Haedo was third.
Astana’s Leipheimer finished safely in the pack to maintain his overall lead, 24sec in front of Australian Michael Rogers.
Leipheimer’s Astana teammate Lance Armstrong, the seven-time Tour de France winner who launched a comeback this year after an absence of more than three years, also finished in the main group to remain fourth overall, 30 seconds back.
“It was a hard race,” Armstrong said. “It was aggressive in the beginning, guys wanted to get away and get a break going, then they just made our lives tough on those first couple of climbs.
“Not an easy day,” he added. “It was fast coming home, but all in all pretty tough.”
The Tour of California is Armstrong’s second race of 2009, after the Tour Down Under in Australia last month.
“It’s a harder race than the first race,” Armstrong said of the California event, which has been dogged by cold, wet weather. “I feel good.”
Cavendish had been expected to challenge in Tuesday’s stage three but ended up a disappointing fifth after he was separated from lead-out man Mark Renshaw.
“Bad stuff happens, you’ve got to make ammends and that’s what we did today,” he said.
“Today wasn’t really a stage I was targeting, I thought it would be about survival,” Cavendish said. “But it played into our hands.”
He credited his Columbia teammates with keeping him going through the mountains.
“The team did so, so well together,” he said. “They stayed with me on every climb.”
And as the stage wound down to its flat, quick finish, Cavendish was perfectly poised to make the most of his sprinting abilities.
“They put me in a perfect position,” he said. “When they dropped me off with 200m to go, there was only really going to be one outcome.”
It wasn’t all good news for Columbia, however, as Luxembourg’s Kim Kirchen broke his right collarbone and scapula in a crash that also saw Spain’s Oscar Freire of Rabobank crack two ribs.
“It was a freak accident,” Cavendish said of Kirchen’s crash, which apparently started when a jacket he was trying to shed got caught in a wheel.
“He got a cape in his front wheel and down he came,” Cavendish said. “He has broken his collarbone.”
American Floyd Landis, who was also caught up in the incident, was able to rejoin the peloton.
Photo by: Jonathan Tessler/Bicycle.net