Overall title goes to Leipheimer

Times Staff Writer

George Hincapie proclaimed the Amgen Tour of California part of the future of cycling. Levi Leipheimer suggested the California race should get longer and challenge the historically important European spring races.

Winning in the rain makes guys starry-eyed.

Hincapie, for seven years a loyal lieutenant to Lance Armstrong as Armstrong won a record-setting seven consecutive Tour de France titles, won the final stage of the eight-day Tour of California on Sunday.

Leipheimer won his second consecutive overall title. The 93-mile final stage from Santa Clarita to Pasadena finished with six five-mile laps around the Rose Bowl. Hincapie, who rides for Team High Road, had a winning time of 3 hours 50.57 minutes on the course that climbed 4,906 feet up Millcreek Summit and descended in a pouring rain on steep and slippery roads.

Leipheimer, a Santa Rosa, Calif., resident who rides for Astana, finished the eight stages in 29:24.32, about 49 seconds ahead of British national champion David Millar of Slipstream-Chipotle.

Millar's teammate Christian Vande Velde of Lemont, Ill., finished third.

Slipstream-Chipotle, based in Boulder, Colo., was one of several aggressively anti-doping teams trying to clean up a sport tainted by two years of scandal.

"This might be a bold statement," said Hincapie, who rides for Team High Road. "But the future of our sport is races like this. The crowds are awesome, the race is well-organized, the European guys love it."

Leipheimer's vision for the top U.S. race is even bolder. The 34-year-old, who finished third at last year's Tour de France, is now racing for Astana. Leipheimer joined the team, based in Kazakhstan, after his Discovery Channel team lost its sponsorship after last season.

Astana was one of several teams involved in doping scandals at last year's Tour de France but is the only one that has been banned from participating in the 2008 Tour.

"The Tour of California is already better than a lot of races in Europe quality-wise," Leipheimer said.

"Let's go for it. Let's go up against some of these bigger races."

AEG Sports, which owns the Tour of California, originally made a five-year commitment when it started the California race three years ago.

Patrick McQuaid, president of UCI, the international cycling federation, said last Friday that he is optimistic about future growth of the Tour of California.

"No doubt it is the best race, the biggest race in the U.S.," McQuaid said.

"It has a big future if AEG wishes to take it to another plane. The UCI is certain to work with them if they want to do that."

Jonathan Vaughters, a former competitive cyclist who runs Slipstream, cautioned that taking another step, as McQuaid suggested, might mean a change in dates and a resolve to butt heads with the European race calendar.

"For me, right now, this is a neat way to start the season," he said. "If this race wants to make a step up, it can't be inch by inch. It has to challenge for a big spot toward the middle of the season.

"That's a big challenge, and it would be great for American cycling if AEG wants to take that on. But there's no way to improve incrementally. You just have to really go for it, and that's a hard thing to do."

AEG sports director Andrew Messick also took a more cautious tone. "We don't see any limits," Messick said. "But Levi's comments, those are bold and ambitious thoughts. Maybe our next step is to expand a bit. Maybe having a prologue on Friday instead of Sunday and expanding a couple of days is the most reasonable thing.

"Whether we want to do something dramatic, I'm not sure we're ready to make an enormous leap forward."

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Slipstream, in its first year of trying to be a major international professional team, won the overall team title. Vaughters hopes that provides Tour de France officials impetus to give his team an invitation. . . . Robert Gesink, a 21-year-old from the Netherlands and the Rabobank team, won the honor as best young rider for the second year in a row. Dominique Rollin of Toyota United won the sprint title, and Scott Nydam of BMC Racing won the king of the mountains championship.

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diane.pucin@latimes.com

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