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Leipheimer completes a hat-trick

AMERICAN Levi Leipheimer secured his third straight Tour of California title on Sunday, crossing in the main pack of the eighth stage won by Luxembourg's Frank Schleck.

"The first win was huge, the second win was a surprise and the third victory was the sweetest," Leipheimer told reporters. "This was my race. I trained hard during the winter and now it's time for me to pay back my teammates in other races."

Leipheimer, whose teammates include seven-times Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, assumed the race lead in Monday's second stage and remained top of the overall classification through to the finish.

Armstrong, competing for the first time in North America since returning from a three-and-a-half year retirement, finished seventh overall. "I said from the start that we were here to ride for Levi and we accomplished that," said Armstrong, who completed his second stage-race since announcing his comeback. "Overall, we are happy. If you compare this February 22 to the same date as other years, we're ahead of the game."

Leipheimer began the 156-km final stage with a 36-second advantage over compatriot David Zabriskie and was never threatened, coming home safely in ninth place surrounded by his Astana teammates.

Schleck claimed the gruelling stage that featured four climbs, including an ascent of snowy Mt. Palomar (1,561 metres) in a time of three hours, 48 minutes and 40 seconds. Vincenzo Nibali was second in the same time with American George Hincapie third trailing by 39 seconds.

American Floyd Landis, the dethroned 2006 Tour de France titlist competing for the first time since a two-year doping suspension, placed 23rd among 84 finishers.


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