TOC: Long day, tight finish 

If it hadn’t been raining for much of the day, world road cycling champion and Olympic gold medalist Paulo Bettini would have been burning up the 132.5-mile road between Seaside and San Luis Obispo on Thursday.

After a gray and soggy dawn, the riders of the Amgen Tour of California took off on the longest stage of the race, following state Highway 1 along the central coast, including Big Sur, a ride overall leader Levi Leipheimer called the "postcard" of the race.

Leipheimer, of Santa Rosa, held onto the leader’s yellow jersey for the fifth straight day of racing. He leads Stage 3 winner Jens Voigt by three seconds entering the final three days.

While Leipheimer battles to hold on to the leader’s jersey, Bettini, an Italian racing for the Belgian QuickStep team, powered through a hard sprint Thursday to eek out a stage win by what looked like barely more than an inch. He edged out Germany’s Gerald Ciolek of T-Mobile and Argentina’s Juan Jose "J.J." Haedo of CSC, who took the Stage 1 win in Sacramento on Monday.

"You always like winning," Bettini said through an interpreter after the race. A stage win wasn’t necessarily a goal of his going into the race, Bettini said, but he said his legs felt strong during Wednesday’s tough climb and he thought he could have gone for the win then. "But a day later is OK," he said.

Bettini is the first world champion to win a race in the United States since Lance Armstrong won the Thrift Drug Classic in Pennsylvania in 1994.

As the riders snaked along the winding Pacific Coast Highway, they encountered one rain shower, but they were also helped along by a tailwind. Around the 85th mile, they averaged about 35 mph.

"The weather wasn’t so bad," Leipheimer said. "When we woke up, it looked pretty grim but then it cleared up. We went through one shower, which was cold, but today was the postcard of the Amgen Tour of California."

Young Slipstream rider Lucas Euser, who unsuccessfully battled Christophe Laurant for the King of the Mountain jersey Thursday, rode into his hometown to an explosion of cheers.

"The biggest difference between this year and last is that I could see the signs with my name last year. This year, I was a bit cross-eyed," said Euser, who finished 62nd in the stage and is 53rd overall. "I was staring at the rear wheel in front of me."

Euser, 23, rode at the collegiate level for Cal Poly San Luis Obispo before turning pro in 2005.

Today, the riders will compete in time trials in Solvang. They will ride individually around a 14.5-mile course in a test of brute cycling strength.

"I’m pretty confident," said Leipheimer, who finished ninth in the time trials in San Jose last year. "I feel I’m the best rider in the race."

amartin@examiner.com

For the latest news and features about the race, be sure to check our special Amgen Tour of California page.

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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