Levi Leipheimer (Astana) took the race leader?s yellow jersey after the first mountain stage at the Tour of California on Wednesday and the race is set for a showdown in Friday?s 24km time trial in Solvang.

Leipheimer broke away with Rabobank’s Robert Gesink on the final climb of Sierra Road and the two held off a chasing group of 15 riders before Gesink took the stage win. The two finished 19 ahead of the chasers. Leipheimer now leads by 13 seconds ahead of Fabian Cancellara (CSC).

The big Swiss rider is in excellent form and showed it by getting back on to the front group on the descent of the final climb but was angry he failed to catch Leipheimer.

Britain?s David Millar was proud of his Slipstream team mates. Despite losing sprinter and race leader Tyler Farrar with a stomach bug, there were four ?argyle boys? in the front group with Millar, Christian Vande Velde and Dave Zabriskie all still in with a chance of overall victory. Millar is fourth overall at 20 seconds, with Zabriskie sixth at 21 seconds.

With so many great time triallists still close in the overall standings, Leipheimer admitted that the race was still wide open. However he confirmed he and the Astana team are fighting for overall victory as a response to the team being excluded from the Tour de France, Giro d?Italia, Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico.

?Our morale is really good now. We needed that,? he said after pulling on the yellow jersey.

?We?ve got something to prove here and we?re racing hard and giving it all. We?re not going to hang our heads. We?re the best team in world and we came here to prove it. We?re going to answer with our legs and with our style of racing.?

?We?re frustrated because there?s no explanation for why we were left out. Their arguments are vague, weak and inconsistent. We came out with something to prove and the best thing we can do is to fight back and hope fans speak out and let organisers know the race won?t be same without us.?

?Whoever wins the Tour can?t feel that great. They can?t feel they?re the best rider in the world.?

Leipheimer knows that the 19 seconds he gained on Wednesday?s stage could be vital for overall victory.

?I think the seconds are very important. I?d like as much as possible but I think time gained is hugely important and with the seconds I gained in the prologue it?s really valuable for the in time trial. It gives me a lot of confidence and I rest easier knowing that I have an advantage. This race is won by seconds not minutes.?

?Tomorrow (Thursday?s) 218km along the Pacific Coastal Highway to San Luis Obispo) is not an easy day. I?m pretty sure it?s the longest stage of the race. There?s a lot of climbing, the weather could be a factor, I?ve been under pressure been there before and I?ve got that going for me. Thursday is important for my team mates then it?s my turn on Friday. I?m going to concentrate on recovering, then I?ll try and do my best.?

Levi Leipheimer and Robert Gesink, stage three. Photos: ISPA

TOUR OF CALIFORNIA: STAGE 3 RESULTS

1 Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank in 4-28-29
2 Levi Leipheimer (USA) Astana at same time
3 Jurgen Vandewalle (Bel) Quick Step at 19secs
4 Kevin Seeldraeyers (Bel) Quick Step
5 José Luis Rubiera Vigil (Spa) Astana
6 Thomas Peterson (USA) Slipstream
7 Christopher Horner (USA) Astana
8 Mauricio Alberto Ardila Cano (Col) Rabobank
9 Alexandre Moos (Swi) BMC Racing Team
10 Victor Hugo Pena Grisales (Col) Rock Racing all at same time

TOUR OF CALIFORNIA: OVERALL AFTER STAGE 3

1 Levi Leipheimer (USA) Astana in 13-45-30
2 Fabian Cancellara (Swi) CSC at 13secs
3 Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank at 15secs
4 David Millar (GBr) Slipstream at 20secs
5 Gustav Larsson (Swe) CSC at 21secs
6 David Zabriskie (USA) Slipstream
7 Christian Vande Velde (USA) Slipstream at 23secs
8 Christopher Horner (USA) Astana at 25secs
9 Alexandre Moos (Swi) BMC Racing Team at 29secs
10 Victor Hugo Pena Grisales (Col) Rock Racing at 31secs


TOUR OF CALIFORNIA: STAGE REPORTS

Stage three: Leipheimer takes the lead
Stage two: Boonen wins in the rain
Stage one: Haedo wins sprint
Prologue: Cancellara wins

TOUR OF CALIFORNIA: VIDEO HIGHLIGHTS

Video highlights: stage two
Video highlights: stage one
Video highlights: prologue

RELATED LINKS
Cancellara and Millar to challenge Leipheimer
Tour of California: photo gallery
Cipollini: “Third here is worth a hundred other victories”
Stage two: Cavendish angry after sprint mix-up
Cancellara angry with Hamilton, Sevilla, Botero protests
Cancellara: “I always have to win prologues”
Wiggins and Millar unhappy with prologue rides
Tour of California: preview