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TOUR OF CALIFORNIA CYCLING FANS CHEER RACERS TO THE FINISH STAGE 6 STOPS IN SANTA CLARITA.

Byline: JUDY O'ROURKE

Staff Writer

SANTA CLARITA -- The Amgen Tour of California breezed through Santa Clarita on Saturday in what may have been the hardest leg of the professional cycling race.

Competitors aggressively sought to overtake the team holding the overall lead, but in the last lap the yellow jersey prevailed.

"Today was war!" cried Ryan Rietzel, a cycling fanatic who helped the city organize the event. "A bunch of teams knew today was the last day to take the yellow jersey away from Levi Leipheimer."

Top international cycling teams are featured in the 12-city tour, which began in San Francisco on Feb. 18 and ends with the seventh and final stage -- a circuit race -- in Long Beach today.

Leipheimer has worn the yellow jersey since the prologue in San Francisco, and his Discovery Channel Pro Cycling Team defended the jersey Saturday.

On the approach to town, a small pack of sprinters kept a fast pace, paving the way for teammates in the peloton -- the main pack of riders -- to surge forward at the finish. But the tactic proved futile.

"Another breakaway did not succeed," said onlooker Doug Carey, 37, a Long Beach firefighter perched atop a wall near the finish line. "The sprinters won in the end."

Carey, whose gaze alternated from the road to a big-screen TV that captured the action out of sight, competes in circuit races as a member of the Long Beach-based Velo Allegro club.

Officials estimated 150,000 to 200,000 spectators lined the route within city limits to watch the city's first hosting of the elite event that debuted last year. Event sponsors say crowds broke the million mark Friday.

Saturday's 105-mile sixth stage from Santa Barbara to Santa Clarita was grueling, and riders will be hard-pressed to catch Discovery today.

The tour wraps up with a 77-mile circuit race in Long Beach that begins at 1 p.m.

Participants hail from 28 countries, and the field of 144 who began the race has dropped to 118. Among the elite are top 2006 Tour de France finishers Thor Hushovd, Jens Voigt, Michael Rasmussen, Matteo Tosatto, Michael Rogers and Leipheimer; top Giro d'Italia finishers Ivan Basso and Franco Pellizotti; and 2006 world champion medalists Paolo Bettini and Fabian Cancellara.

Juan Jose Haedo of Team CSC was the fastest rider Saturday.

The top teams include Discovery, T-Mobile, Predictor-Lotto, HealthNet, Liquigas, Rabobank and Team CSC.

After the race, Aaron Olson, of T-Mobile, praised Santa Clarita's spirit and weather, which he encountered during earlier training sessions. His team claimed its third overall second- place finish in the race.

"We want to win, but we can't win them all," said Olson, among the top 200 riders in the world. "It was an awesome crowd."

Many cyclists peddled the blocked-off course Saturday morning before the pros began arriving about 2:30 p.m.

Charlie Rooney, 48, came from New Jersey for the privilege with his bike in tow. Before the race, he made a prediction.

"Whoever's in the lead today, his teammates will chase anyone down who tries to break away tomorrow," he said. Rooney is following the tour, riding along the course each morning.

For others, it was a good excuse to party. A group of friends shared an epicurean lunch on a grassy median a safe distance from the throngs hugging the finish line.

In honor of the European-style road race, they savored Calamata and Nicoise olives, imported salamis, aged provolone and Gouda cheeses and rustic Italian bread.

"We're trying to counterbalance the great physical aptitude of the riders," said Steve Coon, 42, of the San Fernando Valley.

judy.orourke@dailynews.com

(661) 257-5255

CAPTION(S):

3 photos

Photo:

(1 -- 2 -- color -- ran in SAC edition only) The main pack of riders, above, speeds down Grimes Canyon road during Stage6 of the Amgen Tour of California on Saturday. At top, Juan Jose Haedo of the CSC team wins a close race at the finish. Levi Leipheimer of the Discovery team retained the overall lead in the race, which will conclude today in Long Beach.

(3 -- color -- ran in SAC edition only) Fans lining the finish watch the racers approach on a big-screen TV. Thousands came out to watch the city's first hosting of the elite event.

David Crane/Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 25, 2007
Words:713
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