Pagliarini finishes second, then first

Times Staff Writer

Levi Leipheimer will take the yellow jersey into today's final race of cycling's Amgen Tour of California after a wild sixth stage Saturday that ended with Brazil's Luciano Pagliarini claiming victory although Britain's Mark Cavendish crossed the finish line first.

"It's not like a win with hands up," said Pagliarini, who was awarded the win about half an hour after the race. "I was second but I am the first. I am so sorry about Cavendish. But for me, I'm real happy."

Cavendish's troubles started when he took a rough spill midway through the second of three race-ending 3.5-mile circuits around downtown Santa Clarita. And though he quickly climbed back in the saddle, the president of the race jury ruled he was unfairly assisted by his team's car in rejoining the pack.

Nearly an hour after the race, an angry Cavendish still wasn't sure what had happened.

"You'll have to ask them," he said of the race officials. "I won a race and they took it away from me."

Race director Jim Birrell said Cavendish, who bloodied his elbow and reportedly damaged his rear derailer in the crash, clung to his team car for an extended period after getting back on his bike. That led to a 20-second penalty that dropped him from first to 74th.

As for Leipheimer, the defending tour champion from Santa Rosa, he managed to maintain the 49-second lead he built during Friday's time trial by ignoring an early breakaway and sticking behind his Astana teammates near the front of the chasing peloton through the 105.4-mile ride from Santa Barbara to Santa Clarita.

Six riders made a bold surge away from the rest of the 93-man field less than 25 miles into the stage, fighting chilly head winds to build a lead of more than seven minutes by the halfway mark.

And the strategy almost worked, with the breakaway riders holding the lead until the final three miles, when they were swallowed by the field. Then less than a mile after that, David Millar of Britain, the only competitor within a minute of Leipheimer when the day began, made a break of his own.

The Astana riders reacted quickly, through, with Leipheimer and Millar eventually crossing the finish line tucked in the middle of the pack, which crossed the line in 4 hours 18 minutes 31 seconds.

That leaves this afternoon's challenging 93-mile seventh stage through the Angeles National Forest, over 4,900-foot Millcreek Summit -- the highest point on the Tour of California -- and on to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena as the only thing standing between Leipheimer and another victory.

The course could be modified because of bad weather and race organizers plan to post updates at www.amgentourofcalifornia.com.

Leipheimer and his teammates may have more to worry about than the weather and terrain.

Two riders dropped out during Saturday's stage and 11 more failed to start after complaining of flu, leaving only 91 riders from what started as a 132-man field a week ago.

"It's day by day," said Leipheimer, who was expecting a wet, chilly ride today. "Another day down. [But] it's never over until you cross the finish line."

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Tour of California

*--* STAGE 6 Rider, From Time Luciano Pagliarini, Brazil 4:18:31 Juan Jose Haedo, Argentina Same Paolo Bettini, Italy Same Gerald Ciolek, Germany Same Oscar Freire, Spain Same *--*

*--* OVERALL Rider, From Time Levi Leipheimer, Santa Rosa 25:33:23 David Millar, Britain 0:49 behind C. Vandevelde, Lemont, Ill. 1:08 Fabian Cancellara, Switzerland 1:18 Gustav Larsson, Sweden 1:19 *--*

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