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Leipheimer wins as Armstrong plays key role

  • Story Highlights
  • American Levi Leipheimer wins Tour of California for the third successive year
  • Astana teammate Lance Armstrong comes seventh in second comeback race
  • Armstrong is building up for a tilt at the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France titles
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(CNN) -- Levi Leipheimer claimed his third successive Tour of California title with Astana teammate Lance Armstrong content to play a vital supporting role for his fellow American.

Armstrong (left) points to Astana teammate and race winner Leipheimer on the Tour of California podium.

Armstrong (left) points to Astana teammate and race winner Leipheimer on the Tour of California podium.

Armstrong, in the second race of his much-publicized comeback, worked tirelessly on the final stage to ensure Leipheimer wrapped up overall victory after leading for much of the nine-day race.

"I didn't come in here with any expectations other than to ride for Levi," Armstrong told after finishing seventh.

"I think it will be good for me, personally. I spent 15 years sitting on the peloton's wheel waiting for the final hill to attack.

"It's kind of cool to be pulling away at the front (of the peloton) today. It might be good for my life."

Armstrong will next be in action in the Milan-San Remo one-day classic on March 21 before he builds up for a tilt at the Giro d'Italia and ultimately his attempt at an eighth Tour de France crown.

The organizers of the Tour of California reserved their toughest stage until last with the 155.8 kilometers from Rancho Bernado to Esconidido punctuated by four big climbs, including the ascent of Palamor Mountain.

Leipheimer came under strong attack as he protected a 36-second lead from fellow American David Zabriskie and third-placed Michael Rogers of Australia.

The stage was won by Luxembourg's Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank) from Italy's Vicenzo Nibali (Liquigas), but Leipheimer held firm to finish in a 29-strong group, including Armstrong and the other main contenders for overall honors at 40 seconds.

"I've been trying to think about how to articulate this and it's tough," Leipheimer told the official race Web site

"To win it once, that was huge. To win it twice, that was almost a little bit of a surprise and almost felt like luck. But now, to have won the Amgen Tour of California three times, it's the sweetest victory of all. I think we proved that we were the best team in the race. There is no question about that."

Astana won the team prize to underline their strength ahead of the main racing season in Europe where Armstrong will join forces with 2007 Tour de France champion Alberto Contador and Leipheimer in their quest for the top prizes in cycling.

On Monday, Armstrong confirmed he will compete in the Tour of Ireland in August.

The Texan, who has not raced in Ireland since 1992, will use the event to promote his cancer charity.

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