SOLVANG, Calif. (AP) — Lance Armstrong is just along for the ride this time. The Tour of California is all about helping teammate Levi Leipheimer defend his title.
So far, so good.
Leipheimer won the individual time trial Friday and added to his overall lead, with Armstrong finishing 14th.
Leipheimer crossed the finish line of the 15-mile course in 30 minutes, 40 seconds, and waved three fingers on his right hand to signal his third consecutive time-trial victory in this quaint Danish tourist town. The American who competes for Astana is going for his third victory in the race's four-year history and increased his overall lead by 12 seconds.
"It gets more and more special," he said. "I said on the podium this one is the most special because it was so tight. For me to beat these guys, it's a big honor."
Armstrong, riding his time-trial bike that had been stolen along with three belonging to his Astana teammates after last weekend's time trial in Sacramento, dropped from fourth to sixth in the overall standings. The bike, worth about $10,000, was turned into police on Wednesday by an unidentified resident.
"There's no pressure on me," Armstrong said outside Astana's motorcoach. "This race is about Levi, so while I was doing my race I was waiting to hear the time splits on Levi and (David) Zabriskie."
The 37-year-old seven-time Tour de France champion was unable to gain precious time racing against the clock on the fast, mostly flat course, leaving him unlikely to dethrone Leipheimer over the final two days.
"Done with the tt. That hurt!" Armstrong wrote on his Twitter feed nearly two hours after finishing. "Not a bad first test. Wanted to be top 15 so was able to do that. Story of the day tho was Levi. Amazing."
Leipheimer doesn't expect Armstrong to go for a victory in either of the two remaining stages.
"He knows how cycling works, you can't do it without a team," he said. "I have a lead and he's a great teammate. I think he will focus on helping me win the race."
Leipheimer understands the arrangement is a quid pro quo for the Giro d'Italia, which Armstrong is scheduled to race in for the first time in May with Astana.
"I hope so because that means he's riding extremely well and he's back to the level he was when he was winning seven Tour de Frances," he said. "You really have to appreciate the work that your team does for you. When I'm able to help a teammate win a race I share in the victory."
American Zabriskie of Garmin-Slipstream was second by 8 seconds in the time trial and second overall, trailing Leipheimer by 36 seconds.
Zabriskie all but conceded the tour to Leipheimer.
"It would take a lot of screwing up on their part (to lose)," he said. "With the experience that they have and the depth of their team, they know what they're doing."
Australian Michael Rogers of Columbia-High Road finished fourth and was third overall, 46 seconds behind Leipheimer.
"It hurt the whole way around as it should when you're going as hard as you can," Rogers said.
Gustav Larsson of Sweden, who competes for Saxo Bank, was third in the time trial. Germany's Jens Voigt was fifth, and American George Hincapie was sixth.
Unlike the tour's rain-plagued early stages in Northern California, conditions were nearly perfect for the sixth stage, with sunny skies on a nearly windless day in the rolling hills of the Santa Ynez valley.
Armstrong had picked Leipheimer to win the time trial for the third straight year and referred to him as "Levistrong," a play on Armstrong's cancer charity Livestrong.
The Tour of California is Armstrong's first competitive appearance on U.S. soil since returning to elite competitive cycling.
He was clearly the draw Friday, when crowds 10-deep surrounded Team Astana's motorcoach, with many fans holding yellow-and-black "Lance Fan" signs on sticks and pressing close to catch a glimpse of him and Leipheimer. Astana's own security staff was hard-pressed to contain the gathering that included kids in strollers and dogs of every kind.
"To have him around, it's all positive because the riders, staff and everybody is doing their job above and beyond," Leipheimer said. "The team runs to perfection. It's a great environment."
Fans jammed Copenhagen Street at the finish line in the village of 5,300 that has hosted some of cycling's pro teams for training camps. Nestled in the heart of the Santa Barbara area's wine country, Solvang is Danish for "sunny fields" and was a backdrop for the 2004 film "Sideways."
Ivan Basso of Italy missed his start after crashing and dropped out. He returned to cycling in October after a two-year doping ban.
The race continues Saturday with Stage 7, an 88.9-mile ride from Santa Clarita to Pasadena's historic Rose Bowl stadium.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.