After facing the brutal Sierra Road Category 1 climb approaching San Jose, Team CSC won its second consecutive stage with Jens Voight (GER) dominating most of the 94.8-mile (152.2km) stage with a time of 3:43.44 to best Discovery Channel Pro Cycling Team's Levi Leipheimer (USA). Predictor-Lotto's Chris Horner (USA) rounded out the top three.
As expected, the Sierra Road climb separated the riders and shook up the general classification. With Santa Rosa's Leipheimer retaining the overall leader position by three seconds, Voigt and Health Net Pro Cycling Team Presented by Maxxis' Rory Sutherland (AUS) overtook second and third place respectively. San Jose's Ben Jacques-Maynes of the Priority Health team entered the day's stage in third place heading into his hometown, but faltered to finish 3 minutes and 3 second behind the leaders, falling to 38th place overall. Nine riders failed to cross the finish line within the qualifying time and were eliminated from the race.
"Today was an incredible day for the sport, both in terms of the competition, as well as the enthusiasm the fans showed from Stockton to San Jose," said Shawn Hunter, president of AEG Sports, presenters of the race. "When the peloton came over Sierra Road, it was like parting the red sea to get through all the fans. After a day like this, no one can argue that there is an enormous appetite for cycling in America."
Voigt rode with a breakaway that formed within the first five miles and quickly opened a gap that grew to five minutes by mile 55. Seventeen riders were in the breakaway, spurred on by Voigt, who in addition to the stage win was awarded the Adobe Most Aggressive Rider Jersey and the Herbalife Sprint Jersey. The Discovery Channel Pro Cycling Team, encouraged by words from Lance Armstrong following in a team car, battled to contain the deficit.
"Today was a bike ride. It was a huge battle; it was war out there," said Leipheimer, who talked with Lance Armstrong throughout the race for encouragement. "He [Lance] understands that today was a real battle. He was 100 percent behind us cheering us on. It really made everyone dig, so it was special."
Seventy-three miles into the race, at the start of the decisive Sierra Road climb, which gained about 1,700 feet (518 m) in 3.9 miles (6.3 km), the hard-charging peloton was only one minute behind the breakaway.
Discovery Channel Pro riders George Hincapie (USA) and Ivan Basso (ITA) launched Leipheimer's attack as he pursued the leaders up the climb, and the entire field exploded under the pressure of the 10%+ gradient.
Predictor-Lotto's Chris Horner of Bend, Ore., and Rabobank's Robert Gesink (NED) managed to keep Leipheimer's wheel, and the trio caught Voigt a little more than halfway up. Voigt and another breakaway rider, Leipheimer's teammate Jason McCartney (USA), hung onto this speeding trio and a group of five crested the summit together.
In only four miles on Sierra Road the race changed almost beyond recognition. A group of 12 riders containing the world champion, Team CSC's Paolo Bettini (ITA), followed the new leading group over the summit, about 30 seconds back. But the leaders descended faster on the narrow roads, and by the bottom, with only 12 miles (20km) remaining to the finish, the group had a lead of about one minute over a chase group that had grown to 27 riders.
With the large chase group bearing down hard on the leaders, it was a frantic flight into downtown San Jose. With a little under two miles to go, Leipheimer attacked the group, and a counter attack quickly came from Voigt.
But what brought a gasp from the large crowd watching the closing miles on the big screen at the finish was the sight of the main group swinging around a corner, catching the breakaway with less than 30 seconds behind the leaders. Leipheimer led the charge into the finishing straight, but Voigt came around him and powered to the win. The time bonuses Voigt picked up during the day – three seconds for winning an intermediate sprint at Livermore and 10 seconds for the line honors – put him within easy reach of Leipheimer for the time trial. With no intermediate or finish sprint time bonuses on the 135-mile Stage 4, this sets the stage for a nail-biting time trial on Friday – provided that there is not another successful breakaway like today.
Neither of the current lead contenders is willing to commit to a prediction about the conclusion of the 2007 Amgen Tour of California. "Sure, we've got a fair chance, but also Levi's got a fair chance. He's a great rider, and it was only 15 seconds to the group behind us… it's hard to say where it goes from here," said Voigt.
Leipheimer was of a similar mind: "Jens Voigt can time trial pretty well. I'm a long way from the overall victory… I would've liked to have got to the finish with a minute over the group." Today's King of the Mountain Jersey was awarded to Quick Step-Innergetic's Jurgen Van de Walle (BEL). The Union Bank Best Young Rider jersey went to Predictor-Lotto's Matthew Lloyd (AUS).
Title sponsor Amgen will hold another "Breakaway Mile" tomorrow on the final mile of the course before the peloton streaks into San Luis Obispo. "Amgen continues to seek meaningful ways to communicate the progress we have made discovering and developing innovative and vital medicines to treat serious illnesses," said George Morrow, executive vice president, global commercial operations, Amgen. "Through the Amgen Tour of California sponsorship, we are raising awareness of the medical breakthroughs possible through biotechnology while creating the Breakaway from Cancer™ initiative to further support cancer patients and caregivers."