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By John Wilcockson
Levi Leipheimer, who thought the Mercury Sea Otter Classic would be a two-man race after he won the difficult opening time trial on Thursday, needed time to compose his thoughts. Sitting in the back of the U.S. Postal Service team van, Leipheimer pulled off his race leader’s jersey and pulled on his dark-blue team sweats. A few minutes earlier, he had crossed the line in the company of his closest rival, Mercury’s Chris Horner, but they were almost four minutes behind Saturn’s two-man express: Harm Jansen and new race leader Trent Klasna.
The first words out of a shattered Leipheimer’s mouth were: “We did everything we could.”
“Dave (Zabriskie), Tony (Cruz) and Julian (Dean) were amazing,” he said, referring to his three strongest teammates, who worked as hard they could in pursuit of the Saturn tandem. “They were worth five guys … but five wasn’t enough.”
Leipheimer’s frustration at losing the lead was starting to show on his strained, furrowed brow. “I did everything I could on the last lap,” he continued, “when I was isolated. It was too much…. Mercury, and everybody in the group, was waiting for whatever I did, to chase anything down.
“We did everything we could, and we weren’t relying on Mercury at all. But they seemed to wanna.… They don’t want us to win, I don’t know what the deal is. We did everything to win. We weren’t waiting for them to ride, we weren’t counting on them to ride — they just threw the race away for themselves. We weren’t holding back….”
It was a classic case of two teams marking each other, while a third man got away. That man happened to be Klasna, who was one of 10 riders within 90 seconds of Leipheimer and Horner going into this toughest stage. It wasn’t as if the two leaders didn’t see the Saturn man attack.
“He attacked through the little off-ramp up onto the track. Chann (McRae of Mercury) was on his wheel, and he just sat up and let him go. At the time [with 43 miles to go], it was fine. It’s just Trent alone. But things didn’t come back together, and nobody took responsibility to bring him back. We tried….
“We rode an easy tempo the first laps, so the guys could have a chance to get over the climb the last time. But there were attacks up the climb, and it got pared down, and we brought Trent back to within 30 seconds I believe. But from there it was very negative….
“You know, I have to keep Mercury in control because they’re the next strongest team, and I’m by myself, and I’m going after four Mercury guys, who are attacking one after another. And we’re just losing time to Trent, as that’s going on, because we’re not steady.
“So we lost time, we lost time…. I fought it as long as I could, and finally four against one, with the momentum of attacking, you can’t follow. By the time [the late chase group] got away, Trent was back up to two minutes, and they weren’t going to make it up.”
They didn’t, and Friday night Saturn’s Trent Klasna was poised to claim his second major stage-race victory within a week.