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Leipheimer stays ahead of pack, Cavendish wins stage

BRITAIN'S Mark Cavendish sprinted to victory in Wednesday's stage four of the Tour of California while twice defending champion Levi Leipheimer of the United States maintained the overall lead.

Seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, relieved to be reunited with a bike stolen four days ago, finished in the main pack to stay fourth overall, 30 seconds behind Leipheimer.

Cavendish, who won four stages on last year's Tour de France, surged to the finish of the 185.7-kilometer stage from Merced to Clovis in a time of four hours, 42 minutes 38 seconds.

Leipheimer, overall leader after the second stage, crossed the line in the chasing pack to retain his 24-second lead over Australian Michael Rogers. American David Zabriskie remained third overall, a further four seconds adrift.

"The first one-and-a-half hours were blazing," Leipheimer told reporters. "Even Lance took some monster pulls and brought back four or five guys on his own. It's great to have such a strong team."

Leipheimer's Astana teammate Armstrong, competing on home soil for the first time since ending his three-and-a-half year retirement, was delighted to maintain his overall position after a gruelling stage.

"It was a hard race and it was aggressive racing," said the 37-year-old American, who was informed midway through the day that his US$10,000 custom bike stolen in Sacramento after the opening stage had been found.

"It wasn't that easy today. All in all, it was a tough day."

The fourth stage included five climbs and advanced into the Sierra Nevada. Race organizers cleared ankle-deep snow in some segments prior to the stage.

For the second day in a row, several crashes occurred, forcing the retirement of Luxembourg's Kim Kirchen, three-time world champion Oscar Freire of Spain and American Scott Nydam.

Three riders, among them 2004 Olympic time trial gold medalist Tyler Hamilton, built a big lead for much of the day before Cavendish out-sprinted Belgian Tom Boonen to the finish.

The nine-day event continues with the fifth stage, a flat 216.1-kilometer run from Visalia to Paso Robles.


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