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Italian takes penultimate stage

ITALY'S Rinaldo Nocentini won a three-man sprint to claim the penultimate stage of the Tour of California on Saturday, while American Levi Leipheimer remained on course for a hat-trick of wins.

Nocentini, Hayden Roulston of New Zealand and Dutchman Pieter Weening emerged from a 10-rider break on the last of five laps around the historic Rose Bowl to set up a nail-biting finish to the seventh stage.

The Italian proved too strong for his rivals down the stretch to finish the 143-kilometer run from Santa Clarita to Pasadena in three hours, 24 minutes and 44 seconds with Roulston second and Weening third in the same time.

Leipheimer came home in the main bunch nearly three minutes behind the winner surrounded by his Astana teammates, including seven-time Tour de France champion and compatriot Lance Armstrong.

Making his North American debut in his comeback from a 3 1/2-year retirement, Armstrong lies one minute, 46 seconds behind Leipheimer in sixth place in the general classification.

"It was a hard stage," Leipheimer told reporters. "With two stages to go, everyone wants a piece of the pie."

Leipheimer will take a 36-second advantage over American David Zabriskie into the gruelling 156km final stage from Rancho Bernardo and Escondido that will feature four climbs.

"Teams will be going for it," said Leipheimer, who has led since the second stage. "It's definitely going to be a big battle."

Francisco Mancebo of Spain, the fourth-place finisher in the 2005 Tour de France, abandoned the race during the seventh stage after crashing and suffering a concussion.


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