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Tour of California - 2.HC

USA, February 14-22, 2009

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Stage 4 - February 18: Merced - Clovis, 187.7 km/115.4 mi

Complete live report

Live commentary by Sue George with reporting from Mark Zalewski and Kirsten Robbins in California

10:41 PST   
Welcome to today's coverage of the Tour of California. Stage four will run 115km from Merced to Clovis. It starts at 11:00 am local time.

Today, we'll visit two new host cities and the Sierra Nevada mountains. Five KOMs ("King of the Mountain" competitions) and several sprints will test riders with consistently hilly and technical terrain. This stage will be characterized by consistent climbing surrounded by the beautiful mountain scenery.

10:47 PST   
After an awful lot of sogginess in the previous stages, the racers will be happy to see some sunshine today. At the start in Merced, it's about 48 degrees (Fahrenheit) and mostly sunny. It should get close to 60 degrees, a nice comfortable temperature for racing. However, that doesn't mean it might not still be cold in the Western foothills of the Sierra Nevada, through which today's stage will go. We can see snow on the mountain tops, but we're not sure if there will be any atop the KOMs today.

10:52 PST   
The stage begins with a 5.8 mile (9.3km) neutral section departing Merced. Racers will then travel 28.5 miles before the first KOM of the day. There are five total KOMs, and while they are "only" categories 3 and 4, it's not like those are the only climbs of the day. The stage's profile is very jagged -- excepting the first 15 miles and the last 15 miles, the stage is constantly up or down. It's a course that should make for some interesting racing.

10:55 PST   
We appreciated all your emails with comments and questions during yesterday's stage. Don't worry, even though we can't reply to everyone, we are reading them and trying to answer as many of your questions as we can without missing any of the racing action.

10:58 PST   
A common question we got yesterday was about units. You may have noticed we are often quoting miles and degrees Fahrenheit during the Tour of California coverage - in contrast with coverage of many of the European races, for which we give kilometers and degrees Celsius. For those of you who don't know, most of the US has not converted over to the metric system and you know what they say... "When in Rome, do as the Romans do."

10:59 PST   
Of course, anyone who has raced in the US will notice how it's common to mix units at bike races. Our course profiles may be in miles, but we'll still pass 1km to go and 500m to go signs leading up to the final sprint.

10:59 PST   
The racers are all lined up on the start line - basking in the sun today. Everyone looks pretty relaxed.

11:00 PST   
Despite the nice, bright sunshine, the racers still have on arm warmers and many have on knee or leg warmers, too. The racers roll off for the neutral portion of the start.

11:02 PST   
Clad in yellow, GC leader Levi Leipheimer is sitting comfortably at the front of the bunch, along with several of his Astana teammates.

11:04 PST   
Let's see if the riders can get through today's neutral without any incident. As you may recall from yesterday, Cervélo TestTeam's Ted King crashed before the official start. Everyone waited, but King later withdrew from the stage after apparently aggravating an arm injury from last season.

11:07 PST   
Mechanics are dealing with a few flats during the neutral, which runs for two laps, but those riders should have no trouble catching back on as the peloton is rolling along mellowly.

11:08 PST   
We've heard that there is still snow and ice on the road surface on the way up the fifth and final KOM. However, organizers are at work plowing the road, so hopefully it will be clear by the time the riders arrive in several hours.

11:10 PST   
As the riders roll through Merced, we see spectators standing at various places along the route watching. The riders are chatting and many of them are doing quite a bit of coasting. Seems like a nice way to warm up before the official start. After a prologue and three consecutive stages, there have to be some tired legs in the bunch this morning.

11:12 PST   
The race will officially start when the riders hit the intersection of South Bear Creek and McKee Roads. Then it's 115 miles to go. The city of Merced is the county seat for Merced County. It's located in the San Joaquin Valley and is only two hours from Yosemite National Park.

11:12 PST   
The riders have turned off the start circuits, though the race is still in the neutral zone.

11:14 PST   
Yesterday, three riders were listed as "DSQ" or disqualified: Cameron Evans (OUCH Presented By Maxxis), Phil Southerland (Team Type 1) Charles Bradley Huff (Jelly Belly Cycling Team) in the official results. However, all three are back at the start racing today after officials changed their minds. Originally, the three were disqualified for hanging onto their team cars on the climbs yesterday.

11:15 PST   
It's the turn of the Rabobank team to take care of some mechanicals. At least they get to do so under sunny skies. It's up to 59 degrees now, a welcome change after the past few days.

11:18 PST   
The race is off. No more dawdling, there is an immediate attack.

11:19 PST   
Will Routley (Jelly Belly Cycling Team) is the first rider off the front. A BMC rider is trying to bridge up to him.

11:20 PST   
Alexandre Moos (BMC Racing Team) and Dominique Rollin (Cervélo TestTeam) have joined Routley.

11:21 PST   
No one is letting those three get away. The peloton is back together, but that won't stop others from trying their hand at getting off the front. They are clearly going fast as we can see some guys hanging at the back of the pack - trying to maintain that all-important contact.

11:22 PST   
At the front, they are all jockeying for position. To the left and the right - more attacks are going. Now four riders have a slight advantage.

11:22 PST   
There's plenty of head-turning as they look to each other. "Ok, who is going to take the next pull?" they seem to be asking each other.

11:23 PST    2.5mi/113.3mi to go
Apparently no one as the peloton is reunited.

11:24 PST   
The riders are passing some standing water along side of the road. However, the roads are nice and dry. Nick Reistad (Jelly Belly Cycling Team) launches a decisive solo attack. He gets a quick gap.

11:24 PST   
The riders are passing by an orange grove. There seem to be a lot of bees - hopefully no one who is allergic will get stung.

11:25 PST   
Tom Danielson (Garmin - Slipstream) has a flat and is off the back getting a wheel change. In the front, our leader has been caught and the peloton is back together again.

11:26 PST   
The riders are still all over - using the entire road as they negotiate some 90 degree turns. Some riders try to use the turns to escape to the opposite side of the road and get a gap needed to initiate a break.

11:28 PST   
Today's first KOM will come at mile 28.5. The climb will go from 1409 to 1965 feet over 2.1 miles, for an average grade of 5 percent. It's a category 3.

11:29 PST   
Tom Danielson (Garmin - Slipstream) is getting lots of help off the back. Three teammates are working with him to regain contact with the peloton.

11:30 PST   
There's no slacking off and waiting for the Garmin men at the front though where the action is still happening. Different riders are taking turns attacking, but no one seems to be able to get enough of a separation to make anything stick.

11:35 PST    7.5mi/108.3mi to go
The riders are travelling at 30 miles per hour. We've got some good news from the final climb. Race organizers have cleared the road on the last KOM, so the race is officially cleared to go up and over it. A special shout out goes to Eric Smith and his Madera County crew for clearing the course. They've been at it since midnight.

11:36 PST   
Scott Nydam (BMC Racing Team) managed to launch himself off the front. His BMC team played a very aggressive role in last year's race, often getting its riders away in breaks. However, this time Nydam is caught.

11:37 PST   
The racers are on a pretty narrow road at the moment. There are no markings - no yellow lines or white lines. Looks like maybe 1.5 lanes wide, maybe two.

11:39 PST   
Mathias Frank (BMC Racing Team) and Stuart O'Grady (Team Saxo Bank) have counterattacked. They are off the front on what is now a one-lane farm road, with a rougher surface.

11:40 PST    11.5mi/104.3mi to go
Davide Frattini (Colavita / Sutter Home p/b Cooking Light) and Matthew Crane (Jelly Belly Cycling Team) are trying to bridge. The field is not really reacting at the moment.

11:41 PST   
Mathias Frank (BMC Racing Team), Stuart O'Grady (Team Saxo Bank), Davide Frattini (Colavita / Sutter Home p/b Cooking Light) and Matthew Crane (Jelly Belly Cycling Team) are all together now - at the front. They have a sizeable gap - we'll get you the time check as soon we have it.

11:43 PST   
The four riders are working well together, with a 20 second gap. They are single file, pedalling hard, with everyone in the drops or on the hoods.

11:44 PST   
It's very open terrain here. We're passing some sheep farms. The four leaders negotiate a 90 degree turn and they can see the mountains off in the distance.

11:45 PST   
A few bridgers, looks like three total, are working on closing the gap.

11:47 PST   
Adam Hansen (Team Columbia - Highroad), Carlos Barredo (Quick Step) and Mauricio Ardila (Rabobank) are the bridgers between our four leaders and the peloton.

11:49 PST    16mi/99.8mi to go
The three bridgers are caught back by the peloton. Meanwhile, the four leaders continue with a 25-second gap.

11:50 PST   
David Kemp (Fly V Australia) decides to call it a race and abandons.

11:52 PST   
Karl Menzies (OUCH p/b Maxxis) and Floyd Landis (OUCH p/b Maxxis) are next to make the bridging attempt.

11:52 PST   
Looks like George Hincapie is having some mechanical trouble. He's dropped back to his team car and is getting some attention.

11:53 PST   
Hincapie stops by the side of the road and pulls off his front wheel. He's getting a wheel change.

11:54 PST   
Karl Menzies (OUCH p/b Maxxis) close the gap but Floyd Landis drops back to the pack. Mark Renshaw (Team Columbia - Highroad) now launches an attack.

11:55 PST   
Renshaw makes the bridge.

11:55 PST   
It's all seeming to come back together. Everyone is shuffling positions rapidly.

11:57 PST   
Hincapie is back riding. He is steadily working his way up through caravan, hugging the yellow line on the left side of the cars as he advances. It's a tough time to have to deal with a wheel change and chase back on - as the peloton is still very actively racing along.

11:59 PST    19mi/96.8mi to go
The peloton is all together. However, the counterattacks continue at its front. It's wide open road, about three lanes. They racers are powering up a gradual uphill - we're in the rolling terrain as we approach the mountains.

12:01 PST   
The pack is all strung out, never more than a few riders wide at any point. Clearly the pace is high. Some Astana riders are at the front, keeping tabs on the action. A few riders stand up to stretch their legs.

12:03 PST   
Some riders are attacking. A few are trying to follow while some others are just kind of watching them go. Three riders achieve separation, but a few more are straggling not far behind.

12:03 PST   
Looks like six riders and a bridger or two.

12:05 PST   
The terrain through which they are passing is very green - all that rain has been good for something! There are some trees, but it is generally very open and exposed to the bright sunshine. The peloton is very strung out, with everyone pressed up against one side of the road, the left. So the wind must be coming from the right.

12:05 PST   
The group that was off the front gets reabsorbed and a few other riders attempt to counter. Two get a gap - we'll see how long that lasts.

12:07 PST   
Chris Horner marks the break, shutting it down as the peloton closes back in.

12:08 PST   
The grade appears to be steeper now though everyone is still climbing seated except for a few guys at the front, who are occasionally standing.

12:10 PST    23mi/92.8mi to go
Jason McCartney (Team Saxo Bank), George Hincapie (Team Columbia - Highroad), Christian Vande Velde (Garmin - Slipstream), Rory Sutherland (OUCH p/b Maxxis) and Christopher Jones (Team Type 1) manage to establish a break as they approach the first KOM heading toward Mariposa.

12:11 PST   
This is a potentially powerful break. It will be interesting to see if they can make it stick.

12:12 PST   
At the back of the pack, we have two more abandons: Victor Hugo Pena (Rock Racing) and Phil Southerland (Team Type 1).

12:13 PST   
Looks like there is a sixth rider, but wait, nope, it is the peloton catching them back.

12:14 PST   
Jason McCartney tries to go it alone, but he is caught, and the counter attacks continue.

12:15 PST   
There are five kilometers to go to the first KOM. Jonathan Cantwell (Fly V Australia) abandons, too. This constant attacking is really taking its toll. Jason McCartney (Team Saxo Bank) goes again.

12:18 PST    26mi/89.8mi to go
Jason McCartney (Team Saxo Bank) has taken a few riders with him: Serge Pauwels (Cervélo TestTeam), Floyd Landis (OUCH p/b Maxxis), Rinaldo Nocentini (AG2R La Mondiale), Tyler Hamilton (Rock Racing) and Francisco Mancebo (Rock Racing). Behind them, we have four bridgers: Carlos Barredo (Quick Step), Christopher Horner (Astana), Thomas Danielson (Garmin - Slipstream) and Thomas Lövkvist (Team Columbia - Highroad).

12:20 PST   
Thomas Lövkvist (Team Columbia - Highroad) makes it up to the lead group. Carlos Barredo (Quick Step) drops back to the peloton.

12:21 PST   
The chase group is now three riders: Christopher Horner (Astana), Thomas Danielson (Garmin - Slipstream) and Jens Voigt (Team Saxo Bank).

12:23 PST    27.9mi/87.9mi to go
The three bridgers are caught, but the seven leaders have seven seconds gap. They see 1km to go until the KOM #1.

12:25 PST   
McCartney is sitting in third in the KOM classification starting today, so he probably has his eye on the KOM points. Francisco Mancebo and Bauke Mollema are presently in first and second of the KOM.

12:25 PST   
McCartney is going for the KOM points. He attacks the others and takes one rider along on his wheel.

12:26 PST   
Of course it's Mancebo with McCartney going for the KOM points.

12:27 PST   
We think Mancebo got the top KOM points, ahead of McCartney, but we'll get you official results as soon as we can.

12:29 PST   
Serge Pauwels (Cervélo TestTeam), Jason Mccartney (Team Saxo Bank), Tyler Hamilton (Rock Racing) and Francisco Mancebo (Rock Racing) are the four left off the front. They have eight seconds -the peloton has brought back everyone else since the KOM.

12:30 PST   
Official results of the KOM #1 are
1 Francisco Mancebo (Rock Racing)
2 Jason McCartney (Team Saxo Bank)
3 Serge Pauwels (Cervélo TestTeam)
4 Tyler Hamilton (Rock Racing)
5 Thomas Lövkvist (Team Columbia - Highroad)

12:32 PST   
The next two KOMs are not that far away. Number two (a category 4) will come at mile 40.9 (a category 4) and number three will come at 46.7 miles. After that will come the fourth KOM (category 3) - at mile 54.2. It's a good chance to get a lot of KOM points in a short amount of time.

12:33 PST    32mi/83.8mi to go
The four leaders are going uphill again. They are working well together and growing their gap. It's up to 40 seconds - helped in part by some members of the peloton declining to chase and instead attending to the call of nature.

12:35 PST   
Something we didn't get to mention earlier, while all the action was happening leading up to the KOM #1, was another abandon - this one from Jonathan Cantwell (Fly V Australia).

12:36 PST   
Our four leaders are enjoying a bit of a downhill - their gap is now up to 1.15, so it looks like we finally have a break that is likely to stick for awhile.

12:38 PST   
Before the riders get to the second KOM, they get to contest a sprint in the town of Mariposa, also sometimes called the "Gateway to Yosemite". Mariposa is the county seat of the county of Mariposa, and the sprinters will be greeted by a marching band and cheerleaders at the line.

12:40 PST   
Mancebo is also leading the Sprint classification, with 25 points ahead of yesterday's stage winner Thor Hushovd, with 15 points.

12:41 PST   
After the sprint line, riders will pass the oldest courthouse in California that is still actively in use.

12:42 PST   
We'd like to give a shout out to Chuck Hodge - our very own Mark Zalewski is riding in the technical director's car today. Stay tuned to Cyclingnews for a feature on him coming soon.

12:44 PST    36.3mi/79.5mi to go
They riders are not contesting the sprint; however, Francisco Mancebo (Rock Racing) comes across the line first, comfortably in the lead of the break. He scoops up some more points toward the sprint classification and earns himself a few time bonus seconds.

12:47 PST   
The leaders are doing a bit of shuffling after the sprint. They're all together. Some of them are checking in with their team cars.

12:50 PST   
Tyler Hamilton and Francisco Mancebo (Rock Racing) are talking to their director in the team car. They may be figuring out their strategy. Should they both stay in the break? Mancebo being in the break may jeopardize the chances of the break overall. He is in 16th on the GC, only 56 seconds back (before the first sprint's time bonus). His presence in the break will keep the Astana team a lot more interested in chasing down the break - as it works to protect their leader Leipheimer.

12:51 PST    40.5 miles / 75.3 miles to go
The leaders are inside 5km to go to the second KOM. We have official results from sprint #1.

1 Francisco Mancebo (Rock Racing)
2 Tyler Hamilton (Rock Racing)
3 Jason McCartney (Team Saxo Bank)

12:53 PST   
The leaders are climbing a nice, wide, three-lane road. It's wide open, with plenty of sun. The temperature is still a relatively balmy 54 degrees here in the mountains.

12:53 PST   
Three more riders have abandoned. They hopped into the broom wagon at the sprint line: Charles Bradley Huff (Jelly Belly Cycling Team), John Murphy (OUCH p/b Maxxis) and Jonathan Garcia (BMC Racing Team).

12:57 PST   
Our Kirsten Robbins is at the finish line in Clovis. She reports that its sunny - brilliantly so today, and she notes that she has had to use her sunglasses for the first time since arriving in California.

12:57 PST   
With 200m to go until the KOM, the leaders have a 2.00 minute gap.

12:59 PST   
The leaders are through the KOM. Results are
1 Francisco Mancebo (Rock Racing)
2 Tyler Hamilton (Rock Racing)
3 Serge Pauwels (Cervélo TestTeam)
4 Jason McCartney (Team Saxo Bank)

13:02 PST    41.5mi/74.3mi to go
Francisco Mancebo (Rock Racing) sits up and is clearly waiting for the peloton now. Now are lead group is down to three. So during those chats with the Rock Racing Team car, the decision must have been made to let Mancebo stay with them and take KOM points for that KOM we just passed. However, it's too dangerous for the break to keep him onboard due to his GC standing. He's probably been ordered to drop back to give his teammate Tyler Hamilton a better chance at staying away and going for a stage win with the other two riders. It must be tough for him though - because Jason McCartney gets to stay in the break, which means he will continue to scoop up valuable KOM points.

13:04 PST    42mi/73.8mi to go
The gap has increased to 2.45 to the three leaders. Meanwhile back closer to the peloton Phil Zajicek (Fly V Australia) is trying to bridge up.

13:06 PST   
With Mancebo dropping back, that will take the pressure to chase off Astana as the squad won't feel that their GC leader Leipheimer is so threatened. It will be interesting to see if any other teams take up the chase. Perhaps the sprinters will still be hungry enough to ask their teams motivated to bring back the break in time for the finish?

13:08 PST    44.5mi/71.3mi to go
After the final KOM, racers will still have about 45 miles to go until the finish. That's a lot of downhill and flat for a chase to happen.

For now, the peloton is at 3.15. Phil Zajicek (Fly V Australia) is still chasing, alone, at 1.10.

13:16 PST   
Most of the peloton is together, riding steadily uphill. They seem to be with their hands on the tops of the bars, elbows bent, pedalling smoothly. Some riders have rolled down their arm warmers, but others still have them up.

13:17 PST   
There are some spectators out along the road as the break passes - we must be about at the third KOM.

13:18 PST   
Mancebo is getting reabsorbed by the peloton. He should be perhaps feeling a little more refreshed after drifting back.

13:19 PST   
The leaders are passing snow along the banks on either side of the road as they keep climbing upward. The sun is still out though - to help keep them warm.

13:20 PST   
It turns out that Phil Zajicek (Fly V Australia) is really not in no man's land in between the break and the peloton. His number sounds similar to Mancebo's over the race radio, and in fact, it was Mancebo in between all along.

13:21 PST    46.7mi/69.1mi to go
The racers are past the third KOM. The results are

1 Tyler Hamilton (Rock Racing)
2 Serge Pauwels (Cervélo TestTeam)
3 Fränk Schleck (Team Saxo Bank)
4 Francisco Mancebo (Rock Racing)

13:25 PST   
Rabobank is at the front of the peloton, perhaps they are working for their man Robert Gesink? He might try something on the final climb, and Rabobank is not represented in the break. Last year, Gesink went way with Levi Leipheimer on the Sierra Grade and won the stage. Speaking of Gesink, he had to stand in for Oscar Freire, who finished second in stage 3, for the podium ceremony yesterday. Freire didn't know that they call the top three up in the US, and so he was off, otherwise occupied in the shower.

13:26 PST   
Francisco Mancebo (Rock Racing) may have been under orders to drop back to the peloton from the break, but there is some good news for him. His efforts at the front were enough to enable him to keep the KOM leader's jersey for today.

13:31 PST   
Simon from New Zealand wrote us to say he is cheering his compatriots from New Zealand. He's given a shout out to Peter Latham (Bissell) & Hayden Roulston (Cervélo TestTeam).

13:34 PST   
Some of you have been asking about the Astana bikes that were stolen earlier in the Tour of California. We've heard that Lance Armstrong's time trial bike has appeared at the Sacramento police headquarters. No word yet on the other road bikes that were also stolen.

13:39 PST    53.6mi/62.2mi to go
In fact, we've confirmed that the Sacramento Police Department has Lance's bike. Kudos to them for tracking it down. Apparently it was recovered after a purchase in a not-so-nice part of town. We wonder if the thieves had any idea of whose bike they had!

13:39 PST   
Our leaders are approaching the fourth KOM today. The roads are lined with some pretty continuous snow banks although the roads themselves are dry.

13:45 PST   
Tyler Hamilton put on a vest after crossing through the KOM. He must have known there was a bit of descent afterward - enough to be worth putting on an extra layer. We'll get you results when we have them - we have to wait for the field to come through as there are more than three places on the line.

13:47 PST   
The leaders will hit the second sprint in Oakhurst, at mile 64.1. Although we have the feeling of being in the middle of nowhere, there is already a sizable crowd waiting at the sprint line there. For those of you thinking of the Sierra Nevada range and dreaming of rock climbing in Yosemite, Oakhurst is just 14 miles south of the National Park.

13:49 PST   
Rock Racing Team director Rudy Pevenage told Kirsten Robbins, "We are really happy with our stage 1 result with Mancebo. I think that is a result of his training and our organization within the team this year. We would like to continue to go after the GC with Oscar Sevilla. He is not too far behind, and I think he can move up. Of course we will also defend the KOM jersey for Mancebo." So far the team has done just that. Sevilla is in 11th place in the GC, 39 seconds behind leader Levi Leipheimer - certainly still within striking distance under the right circumstances.

13:50 PST   
Some riders have gone down in the peloton.

13:50 PST   
A Columbia Highroad rider apparently crashed hard - he is not up yet.

13:50 PST   
But there were probably 6 to 10 riders involved total.

13:51 PST   
A Rabobank rider is still sitting on the pavement.

13:51 PST   
Floyd Landis is involved, too.

13:53 PST   
The Columbia rider is up walking, but he is holding his left arm. It looks like a broken collarbone or shoulder injury the way he is holding it. We think it's Kim Kirchen.

13:53 PST   
Oscar Freire (Rabobank) is still sitting on the ground. He was holding his arm though he is moving it now. He was also acting as if the area around his sternum is tender.

13:54 PST    61mi/54.8mi to go
The crash appeared to happen in the middle to back of the pack on a descent.

13:55 PST   
Kim Kirchen (Team Columbia - Highroad) and Oscar Freire (Rabobank) are abandoning. They are being transported to the hospital. Floyd Landis (OUCH p/b Maxxis) is ok - back up riding with the others who went down.

13:56 PST    66.2mi/49.6mi to go
The crash certainly slowed the peloton. The three leaders' gap has grown - it's now at 5.00. They are seeing 5km to go until the sprint in Oakhurst.

13:57 PST   
The crowds in Oakhurst are huge. It looks like all 13,000 residents came out to watch this afternoon.

13:59 PST    63.5mi/52.3mi to go
There is a downhill and a sharp turn approaching the sprint line. It's a good thing we have a break - it'd be sketchy for the peloton to negotiate at speed, and we've had enough crashes already!

A special shout out goes to all the folks of Oakhurst who have come out to cheer.

14:02 PST   
Floyd Landis has regained contact with the peloton after his crash. Kim Kirchen, who wasn't so fortunate, may be a familiar name to many of you - he has worn the yellow jersey during the Tour de France. And Oscar Freire, also crashed out, is a former world champion.

14:05 PST   
As we mentioned earlier in our live coverage today, Lance Armstrong's Time Trial bike has been recovered. Just in time, too, with the riders facing a long time trial on Friday.

14:06 PST   
Pedro Horrillo (Rabobank) and Christian Vande Velde (Garmin - Slipstream) have just crashed. Both are back up, with Horrillo also getting a bike change.

14:08 PST    65mi/50.8mi to go
We have results from the latest KOM. They are

1 Jason McCartney (Team Saxo Bank)
2 Tyler Hamilton (Rock Racing)
3 Serge Pauwels (Cervélo TestTeam)

There is one more sprint today, other than the one to the finish line. We'll have to see whether that last one will be a bunch sprint or a three-up sprint with our current leaders. Everyone still has to get up and over one more KOM, on Crane Valley Road.

14:10 PST    66.2mi/49.6mi to go
There are 5km to go until the final KOM. On this last one, they are ascending from 2402 to 3738 feet, over 4.8 miles. The average grade is 5.3 percent.

Looks like Christian Vande Velde is getting a bit of minor medical attention from his Garmin team car.

14:14 PST   
The break is through the sprint. It's a good day to be in a break and miss all the crashing that's been happening back in the peloton. That seems to have slowed down the riders. The gap has grown to 6.00. In fact, the race overall is going along relatively slowly - they are on the 22mph pace, the slowest of the range predicted by Tour organizers on the log sheet.

14:15 PST   
Michael Barry (Team Columbia - Highroad) just had a bike change, but he's worked himself back up into the peloton.

14:17 PST    67.7mi/48.1mi to go
Results from our final sprint of the day are

1 Tyler Hamilton (Rock Racing)
2 Jason McCartney (Team Saxo Bank)
3 Serge Pauwels (Cervélo TestTeam)
4 Francisco Mancebo (Rock Racing)
5 Glen Chadwick (Rock Racing)

Mancebo sure does have a lot of energy - he won the field sprint to collect those fourth place sprint points back in the peloton.

14:18 PST   
Our three leaders are all out of the saddle on a climb today, but they are going quite slow - only about 10mph. They are being outrun by a gentleman jogging next to and now in front of them with horns on his head.

14:20 PST   
One Oscar Freire fan wrote us with a good point, "You can't just say Oscar Freire is a former world champ and leave it at that. You must say he is a three-time world champion on the road and still a threat to win on many courses." Sorry, we got a little distracted with all the action happening everywhere. It must be a huge disappointment for Freire to have crashed out - we hope he is not too severely injured.

14:25 PST   
It's sunny and 46 degrees, but there is still plenty of snow lining the roads. There roads look wet, probably due to the melting snow. Our leaders are still working together. Behind them the peloton is going along - not to fast either judging by the relative speed of those running next to them alongside the road.

14:27 PST   
After this final climb, the riders will face a rather dangerous descent. There may be some slush on the road, but even without it, residual sand and wetness could make it especially tricky.

14:28 PST   
We already talked about one of yesterday's crash victims, Ted King, but we want to give you an update on two others. Omar Kem sustained a broken pelvis on the left side. According to Beth Skau, Bissell's press officer, no surgery is required. "Kem is in a lot of pain but still in good spirits. He has been released from the hospital."

It's the second loss for the Bissell team. Andy Jacques-Maynes crashed into a parked car midway through the previous stage from Sausalito to Santa Cruz. He suffered a concussion.

14:29 PST   
Ian MacGregor, another DNF after a crash yesterday, was not able to make it through a tight corner descending Sierra Road. He came off the road and went into a truck parked in a driveway. According to Sean Weide, Team Type 1 press officer, doctors stitched up his chin.

On the more fortunate side was GC leader Levi Leipheimer, who crossed wheels with his teammate Lance Armstrong midway through yesterday's stage, causing both riders to go down. Both were ok and quickly returned to the peloton.

14:30 PST   
The gap has closed a little bit - it's at 5.35.

14:32 PST   
The snow banks look several feet high in places as our three leaders zoom past on the descent. The road is obviously wet in places. And they are coming in and out of the shade from the trees lining the course. With all the curves they don't have a lot of visibility in advance, but if there are any icy patches, particularly black ice, it'd be hard to see them in any case.

14:33 PST   
Final KOM results are

1 Tyler Hamilton (Rock Racing)
2 Jason McCartney (Team Saxo Bank)
3 Serge Pauwels (Cervélo TestTeam)
4 Francisco Mancebo (Rock Racing)
5 Michael Barry (Team Columbia - Highroad)

14:35 PST   
Correcting my earlier comment, Lance Armstrong and Levi Leipheimer crossed wheels yesterday, causing Leipheimer to crash, although Armstrong stayed up (as often happens with the person in the front in a wheel crossing incident).

14:36 PST    74.6mi/41.2mi to go
It's colder up here - more like 43 degrees Fahrenheit - about 15 degrees cooler than we are expecting it to be at the finish.

14:40 PST   
The three break riders appear to be keeping a very fluid cadence as the motor along, trading leads. Tyler Hamilton is the current US Pro Road Champion. He won the race late last summer in Greenville, South Carolina.

14:40 PST   
Bernard Van Ulden (Jelly Belly Cycling Team) is involved in a crash, but he is up and rolling again.

14:43 PST   
The break is back on smooth, dry roads again. It's already warmer, up to 53 degrees, the lower elevation is likely helping warm things up.

14:46 PST   
The peloton looks more motivated - they are all strung out and seriously chasing now.

14:48 PST   
According to one of our readers, John, "Dory Holte was the returning fan with the steer horns, which we mentioned earlier, on his head. He often switches those out for the huge rack of deer horns too. He is well-known internationally for his outfit consisting of the Alabama suit, helmet and horns and has been seen at all three Grand Tours."

14:49 PST    82mi/33.8mi to go
The efforts of the peloton are paying off. They gap is down to 4.15, and we still have quite a way to go. Let us know what you think - will it come down to a three-up sprint with our break riders? And if so, who will win? If it's a field sprint, who do you think will win? Keep in mind it's mostly downhill and level from here until the finish.

14:52 PST   
Every time we catch a glimpse of the peloton, we see at least two Astana riders, often more, at or very close to the front. They must be protecting Levi Leipheimer - probably trying to keep him relatively safer up front. Although of course, as we saw yesterday, sometimes it's not the people on the other teams who take you down.

14:53 PST   
The gap is shrinking quickly - it's down to 3.30.

14:58 PST   
We've got some readers predicting Columbia - Highroad will bring them back and manage to get their lead-out train properly in order today. Another is putting his money on Tom Boonen (Quick Step). We certainly haven't heard his name too much yet this Tour of California. Maybe he is still recovering from his success at the Tour of Qatar, where he won the overall classification due to some excellent sprinting en route?

14:58 PST    84mi/31.8mi to go
In the peloton, Scott Nydam (BMC Racing Team) crashes.

14:59 PST   
We've got a Columbia-Highroad and Quick Step rider at the front of the peloton, just ahead of the Astana train including Lance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer and a few others.

15:02 PST   
Andreas, from Denmark is staying up awfully late at home and following today's action. He's putting his odds on JJ Haedo of Team Saxo Bank. "So I believe that JJ will take the stage, but [Thor] Hushovd is also really fast, so JJ has to put in a good effort." We sure saw Hushovd's speed yesterday when he won the stage at the end of a perfect leadout from his Cervélo TestTeam train.

15:03 PST    87mi/28.8mi to go
Nydam is reportedly on the way to the hospital after his crash. This stage is really taking a toll on the size of our peloton. It could be getting crowded in the emergency room as Kim Kirchen and Oscar Freire are likely already en route after their crashes.

15:06 PST    89mi/26.8mi to go
Clovis is today's finish city. It was originally a stop on the San Joaquin railroad. Our break is negotiating a small, twisty descent now - flying along.

15:10 PST   
Team Columbia-Highroad's Mark Cavendish is getting quite a few votes for most likely winner. The British star has proven he can sprint with four stage wins last year at the Tour de France and more recently, stage success at the Tour of Qatar where he was trading wins with Boonen.

One of our readers has predicted George Hincapie will be his lead-out man du jour. Of course, some Tyler Hamilton fans are predicting otherwise - that he will attack with about 10km to go and leave his two break mates behind on his way to a win.

15:11 PST   
Looks like Garmin is taking a turn at the front of the peloton, which is all strung out - not more than 2-4 riders wide at any point.

15:13 PST   
There are no finishing circuits today. Racers will proceed into Clovis and directly to the line. There are a few 90 degree turns en route and about a 700m run-up to the line.

15:15 PST   
There is some debate about what sort of antlers Dory Holte wears and whether he dons a Texas or Alabama suit. We have to confess we're not experts on either of those subjects - our brains are pretty full already with specific cycling trivia!

15:18 PST    95mi/20.8mi to go
Columbia-Highroad is increasing their numbers at the front of the peloton. They are playing a more active role in driving the pace. There's still a Garmin rider, one Quick Step guy, and a few Astanas in the top spots.

In the break, all three riders are in their drops, with heads down and legs pumping.

15:19 PST   
Overall, the race is cruising along at about a 24mph average pace. They're going much faster at this moment, with all the climbing behind them, though we don't have an exact speedometer reading, we'd guess it's over 30mph on this mostly flat, slightly downhill section.

15:22 PST   
The peloton is driving hard - it has dropped the gap to 2.45. Mark Zalewski has confirmed that they are riding at about 30mph on straight, flat, open roads.

15:23 PST   
2.30... now 2.25...

15:26 PST   
The riders are passing a huge dam. Meanwhile one of our readers, Robert, has written in to give a shout out to Garmin's Tom Peterson, who came up the ranks through the Recycled Cycles program as a junior in Seattle. He showed early signs of his potential talent with a win at US Junior Nationals in Park City in 2004.

15:31 PST    102mi/13.8mi to go
The gap is down to 2.00. The riders are speeding through Fresno County, which was named after the Fresno River. Among other things, Fresno County is famous for producing oil - it has one of the largest oil fields in the US, in the western part of the county.

15:33 PST   
Columbia, Garmin & Quick Step are occupying the top three spots in the peloton.

15:34 PST    104mi/11.8mi to go
Behind the peloton are the snow-topped Sierra Nevada mountains - an impressive backdrop. Not that the riders have time to enjoy it as they've been busy closing the gap to 1.25.

15:36 PST   
Tyler Hamilton is taking his turn at the front. He is spinning smoothly, but has a more pained expression on his face than previously in the stage. It's been a long day in the break for all three of these riders.

15:37 PST   
Do you smell anything burning? I think our toast (the break) is almost done! It won't be long on this relatively flat, open terrain before the peloton catches sight of break.

15:39 PST   
The peloton is really strung out. It's about one rider wide for at least half of its length. But Tom Boonen looks quite comfortable. He's having a casual chat with one of his teammates. What do you think he's saying? "Hey dude, don't forget to lead me out!"

15:40 PST    105mi/10.8mi to go
Mark Cavendish looks quite focused. His teammates have been riding fast to help close the gap, which is down to 1.00.

15:42 PST   
Tyler Hamilton swings off the front of the break and assumes his turn at the rear. His body language is indicating that he is more fatigued now - his upper body is moving about more.

15:43 PST    106mi/9.8mi to go
Our three leaders have had a long day. Serge Pauwels (Cervélo TestTeam), Jason McCartney (Team Saxo Bank) and Tyler Hamilton (Rock Racing) have been out front since about 1.5 hours into the race. They were joined for a time by Francisco Mancebo, who later dropped back to the peloton. Mancebo has kept his KOM jersey for the day.

15:47 PST    109.8mi/6mi to go
We've heard from a lot of folks today reminding us of Levi Leipheimer's roots. Though he is often cited as being from California, where he now resides, we are reminded that he used to live in Butte, Montana.

15:48 PST    109mi/6.8mi to go
45 seconds and dropping...

15:50 PST   
It'll be interesting to see if the peloton slows its chase to delay the catch. If the break is caught too soon, it could make the finish that much dicier as the attacks and counterattacks start much sooner before the end. As we saw yesterday, there was quite a bit of chaos with the final members of the break caught on the finishing circuit. At times we saw teams launching simultaneous attacks on opposite sides of the road.

15:52 PST   
Gap is down to 20 seconds. Poor Peter Latham (Bissell Pro Cycling) has suffered an untimely flat tire.

15:53 PST    109.8mi/6mi to go
Garmin, Quick Step and Rock Racing are leading the peloton. They are just 15 seconds behind the field.

15:54 PST   
Most of the sprinters' teams have some riders at the front. The break riders are dumping their bottles, though that weight difference probably won't help them now!

15:54 PST   
10 seconds!

15:55 PST    112.7mi/3.1mi to go
Hamilton is back at the front. While he doesn't have a national champion's jersey on, if you look closely, you will see writing and symbols indicating his championship on his custom Rock Racing jersey. It's tough to see though with the black background color of his jersey.

15:56 PST    113.4mi/2.4mi to go
The gap is still 10 seconds. There tons of people lining the roads today.

15:56 PST   
Hamilton is grimacing. We can see the pack right behind him. Less than 10 seconds now...

15:56 PST   
The trio looks back. They see it is over.

15:57 PST   
Five seconds gap. Looks like the attacks are setting up in the peloton as they close in.

15:57 PST   
At the finish line, the crowds are several deep and very loud.

15:57 PST   
Oh boy - there are four Cervélo riders at the front.

15:58 PST   
They peloton has caught the break. It's all Cervélo at the front, as they negotiate the turn.

15:58 PST   
No wait, make that five Cervélo riders at the front.

15:58 PST    114.6mi/1.2mi to go
Some riders are coming around. Looks like Columbia trying.

15:58 PST   
But Cervélo is holding at the front. Columbia can't get around.

15:59 PST   
There is one Quick Step guy trying to come around, but no luck for him.

15:59 PST   
A Columbia or Rabobank rider tries to go around to the front and is almost taken out by a Cervélo rider pulling off.

15:59 PST    115.2mi/0.59mi to go
One solo rider has 20m.

16:00 PST   
It's Pedro Horrillo (Rabobank) solo off the front.

16:00 PST   
Riders are sprinting all over the road. He is caught.

16:00 PST   
A Columbia-Highroad rider goes for it.

16:00 PST   
Elbows wide and flung everywhere, it's Columbia's Mark Cavendish taking the win.

16:00 PST   
Cavendish thumped his chest as he went across the line.

16:01 PST   
We might have Juan José Haedo (Team Saxo Bank) in second place.

16:02 PST   
Wow, that was a close one! Looking at the photo finish, only inches separated Cavendish from second place.

16:03 PST   
We see Leipheimer coasting around after the finish - so he must have made it safely through the chaos at the end and will keep his leader's jersey.

16:04 PST   
We've got a provisional top five now of Mark Cavendish, Tom Boonen, JJ Haedo, Thor Hushovd and Tyler Farrar.

16:19 PST   
That wraps up our live coverage for stage four. Please join us again tomorrow for stage five from Visalia to Paso Robles (216.1km/134.3 miles).

Stage five will be the longest stage over a new course. The peloton will cover a vast stretch of flat roads on the San Joaquin Valley floor. For the first 100 miles, the riders will have virtually no protection from the wind, creating a challenging ride. Winding its way back to the coast, the route, which will include two sprints, will pass by cattle ranches and farms. Packed full of rolling hills and large horse farms, the final 30-mile run into Paso Robles will be a fast sprint to the finish.

The stage will start a bit earlier, at 10:00 am local time. We hope to have your company again then!

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