SANTA CRUZ — More than a decade into a career as a time trial specialist and cycling's clown prince, David Zabriskie has discovered a new talent. He's also a serious stage racer.
Twice the runner-up at the Tour of California, Zabriskie (Garmin-Transitions) became the third race leader in three days after winning a three-rider sprint Tuesday by inches over Michael Rogers (HTC-Columbia) in the third state of the Amgen Tour of California.
The reigning national time trial titlist, Zabriskie, 31, won the 113.3-mile San Francisco to Santa Cruz road race in 4 hours, 26 minutes and 10 seconds. Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack), the three-time defending titlist from Santa Rosa, finished third in the same time as the top-two finishers.
After forming a three-rider lead group for the final climb with Rogers of Australia and Leipheimer, Zabriskie surged after the final corner en route to his 10-second stage win time bonus en route to his four-second race lead over Rogers.
Leipheimer, who has won five stages of the race in its first four editions but never a road stage, is now third overall, trailing Zabriskie by six seconds.
"The final climb was long and hard," said Zabriskie, who despite his two second-place finishes overall had never previously won a Tour of California stage. "We were just trying to hold off the chase group."
Zabriskie is the only American to win stages in the Tour de France, Tour of Italy and Tour of Spain. But he had not won a stage race in his long career since his title last September in the weeklong Tour of Missouri. He led the Tour de France for several days in 2005 after beating Lance Armstrong by two seconds in the opening time. In Stage 4, however, Zabriskie crashed in a team time trial, quickly ending his title chances.
Throughout his career, Zabriskie has approached the serious nature of pro cycling with a unique sense of humor. He deadpans his share of jokes. He sings during races. He does impersonations. And he's made numerous YouTube videos that promote his anti-chafing product while he impersonates myriad characters.
Leipheimer, who assumed the Tour of California race lead last year after finishing second in the stage to Santa Cruz, was disappointed with the outcome.
"I screwed up the finish," Leipheimer said. "I knew about the final corner, but Dave got the jump on us. I closed the gap to Mick (Rogers), but it was just too short to the finish to do anything."
Lance Armstrong, the seven-time Tour de France titlist and Leipheimer's teammate, finished 14th in the stage and is 12th overall in a group of 14 riders, trailing Zabriskie by 27 seconds.
The top-three finishers in the stage all began Tuesday in a group of 20 riders, trailing faltering race leader Brett Lancaster of Australia (Cervelo) by 10 seconds.
"David (Zabriskie) doesn't look any strong than Levi (Leipheimer) or myself," Rogers said.
"He just got the jump on a tight finish today. But the race is far from over."
Zabriskie, Rogers and Leipheimer emerged at the front of the base in the last of the day's four climbs about 22 miles from the finish and made up an elite trio. Leipheimer won the final Tour de France time trial in 2007; Rogers is a three-time world time trial titlist; Zabriskie has won the U.S. pro time trial title five times. The threesome also finished in the top three spots in last year's Tour of California.