Levi Leipheimer showed he is making significant strides in his recovery and training on Saturday at the 126km Stage 7 of Tour of California, finishing 9th in a select group that produced eventual race winner and new GC leader Robert Gesink (Rabobank). Leipheimer is also 6th in the GC.
"I never would've thought I would've ridden that well today," Leipheimer said. "The start of the race, the first stage I was just hanging in there at the end of the race. I was dead and thought, 'I don't know, this is going to be a tough week.' I showed today I've improved a lot and am on track for July."
Gesink attacked Leipheimer's group in the final kilometers of 8km Mt. Baldy climb, eventually catching and passing John Darwin Atapuma (Colombia Coldeportes) to win solo. Atapuma had been up the road with Chris Horner (Radioshack-Nissan) until he attacked just when Horner was hitting a steep ramp, and as Atapuma distanced himself from Horner, Gesink attacked Leipheimer's group that had included the current GC leader Dave Zabriskie (Garmin-Barracuda), Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing Team), Tom Danielson (Garmin-Barracuda) and others.
"I think fans could ask for anything more," Leipheimer said. "It was full gas. We couldn't have gone any faster. It was just a steady, hard chase the whole day. It was fun. It hurts, but it was fun."
While Leipheimer was initially unable to keep up with the riders trying to catch Gesink, he eventually caught and passed several of the riders for a top 10 finish.
"Today was a hard day," Levi Leipheimer. "The pressure was on all day, but I think that's normal. At the bottom of the steep part here I felt good, then bad, then felt good again and caught up with the guys who dropped me."
Peter Velits, who was 4th in the GC going into the stage, finished 24th and is now 20th overall.
"I don't know what happened today," Velits said. "I felt good on the first and second climb, but then, when we started to do the up and down before the last 9km, I was completely empty. Suddenly I had no power. It's a shame. I knew the climb from last year and I could have done a good race. It was a bad day, now I have to turn the page and stay focused on the next races."
Tomorrow, the team will look to the final 72km stage, from Beverly Hills to Los Angeles. Leipheimer is also thinking about the next races.
"I am definitely aiming for the Tour de France," Leipheimer said. "I'm not going to try and defend the jersey in Switzerland. I'm not in that condition yet. I think it's best to go to Switzerland for training and put everything for July. That's my timeline. I don't want to force it. I want to let my body catch up."