Stolen bikes, frozen planes, radio silence, rain, wind, leader withdrawal, and finally a winner with a shady doping past riding for Rock Racing, the team with the black cars and a logo of a ghostly skull with wings sprouting from its head. It was a rough-and-tumble racing day for Stage 1 of the Amgen Tour of California on Sunday.
It began with word that Lance Armstrong's time-trial bike, along with three road cycles belonging to his Astana teammates, had been stolen from a truck outside a Sacramento hotel.
Less than an hour into the stage that started in Davis and finished 107 miserable miles later in Santa Rosa, leader Fabian Cancellara of Team Saxo Bank quit because he had a fever and a cold and the great idea that his health would not be helped by riding four hours in a freezing downpour.
And a fixed-wing plane that carries the bulk of the communications equipment couldn't take off from Sacramento because of ice at 4,000 feet, so there was little video for television or radio communications for teams or fans. It took nearly four hours to get results after the race.
Spaniard Francisco Mancebo won Sunday's stage in a time of 4 hours 11 minutes 7 seconds and also took the overall lead by 1 minute 2 seconds over two-time defending champion Levi Leipheimer, Armstrong's Astana teammate. David Zabriskie of Garmin-Slipstream is third overall, 1:03 behind the leader, and Armstrong is fifth, 1:05 back.
Temecula's Floyd Landis of Ouch had a flat tire just before the stage entered the finishing circuit in Santa Rosa and, in the chaos caused by the communications breakdown, his team car had trouble reaching him, so Landis lost nearly four minutes and is now in 29th, 5:08 back.
Mancebo is one of four riders on Rock Racing's roster who have been implicated in doping scandals over the last three years, and his breakaway almost wasn't chased down at all. Leipheimer said because of the limited radio communications, his team let Mancebo's lead last too long.
"It was really bad. Chris Horner, I have to thank him," Leipheimer said of his teammate. "He astutely hit the gas. Then we started panicking, asking other teams for help and they kept saying, 'Why should we help?' We said, 'Mancebo's four or five minutes up,' and they said, 'Really?' In the end, our team rode fantastic."
In the effort to cut into Mancebo's lead, the Astana group began performing as if it were riding a team time trial, with one man pedaling as fast and hard as possible then peeling off and letting the next man go. Astana's stated goal is to get Leipheimer his third straight California championship. Getting with the team spirit is Armstrong.
"Lance was fantastic," Leipheimer said. "He was asking me if I wanted him to pull harder and I said no because I need him at the end."
Armstrong said a year ago at this time he was on a Caribbean beach, a place that seemed appealing Sunday. First he woke up to the news his Trek time-trial bike had been stolen and then he suffered through what he called "one of the hardest days I've ever had to do."
As for that stolen bike, distinctively made and fitted for him, Armstrong said, "Bikes are replaceable, but I suspect this bike will come back. There's no way to keep a bike like that to yourself."
He will need one Friday for Stage 6 in Solvang, where a 15-mile time trial is expected to determine the overall winner.
"I've got a spare [time-trial] bike I've actually spent more time on," Armstrong said. "So I'll be all right either way."