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Solvang Story: Winner and Still Champion...

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For all the fancy skinsuit hardware out there today (champion's stripes from 6 different countries and the Worlds to boot), it was the guy in the Yellow Jersey who laid the smack down, and I'm not just trying to sound like a kool kid. Of the results reported so far, the 29 seconds separating stage winner Levi Leipheimer from second-placed David Millar is easily the largest gap between any two riders. This was a performance of, dare I say it, Lance-like proportions: surrounded by power riders itching to reverse their slim deficits, Leipheimer not only held off the challengers but won the day and put pretty insurmountable time gaps into the entire field.

Notwithstanding his lack of chronoman titles, Leipheimer has gone from a guy who could maybe sorta throw down an occasional time trial to something of a chrono ace. Recall, it was a time trial -- the final stage of the 2000 Vuelta a Espana -- that vaulted him from obscurity to protected rider status, a second-placing (behind Santi Botero) which gave Leipheimer a GC podium place as well. For years, though, Leipheimer's time trial results varied: occasional stinkers, usually top 10, very few wins. Even his overall victories at the Dauphine (2006) and DeutschlandTour (2005) were earned in road stages and protected with solid results against the watch, but no victories.

He won the Tour of California prologue last year for the second time, and it was tempting to ascribe these performances to early-season home cooking. But something more was afoot. He cemented the overall with a win at Solvang over Cancellara and other distinguished riders. After a fine 6th in the Paris-Nice prologue, he won the Tour de Georgia time trial, thumping another pretty good field by 41 seconds. Then second and 8th at the Dauphine time trials, when he was guarding his form for July. Then he slowly accelerated to 26th, 8th and first in the three Tour de France races of truth... the latter being a pretty legendary win.

So, does Leipheimer now rank among his decorated combatants today as an elite time trialist? No question about it. The pattern shows that when he comes to win, he has become a solid bet to do just that. His wins include prologues, short courses, and long grand tour stages. Arguably he and Cancellara have yet to do battle when both riders are in peak form and motivation, though I say so with some uncertainty about what we saw today. It's February, I keep reminding myself, but Cancellara has made his ambitions here pretty clear. Unfortunately the whole Astana situation will likely rob us of the chance to see Levi battle the other time trial giants of the sport on the biggest stages this year, though you never know. Maybe Beijing? Or Varese? It remains to be seen what his ambitions are, but Leipheimer is a distinct threat to get himself some of that chronoman hardware that surrounded him at the starthouse in Solvang today.