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Six weeks ago Levi Leipheimer's leg was broken when his bike was hit from behind by an elderly driver in Spain. On Sunday he wasn't just back on his bike — he completed the opening stage of the Amgen Tour of California with a strong finish.

Leipheimer was cheered wildly as he approached the finish line in his adopted hometown of Santa Rosa after a 4?-hour ride in his extended back yard.

Less than six weeks after the accident fractured his left fibula on a training ride in the Basque region, Leipheimer finished 46th in the main field.

Avoiding a late-race crash, reminiscent of late stage crash in a Santa Rosa stage a few years ago that took him down, Leipheimer finished in the front peloton among more than 60 riders just behind the lead threesome.

"Good and bad," the Santa Rosan said of the return he confirmed only Saturday. "Obviously (it was) great, because we're here in Santa Rosa, my hometown. It was a huge success, the course was beautiful. But to be honest, I suffered a little bit."

Leipheimer, 38, returned to training April 20 and was unable to gain to the form that has propelled him to six Tour of California stage wins and three race titles — both the most of any rider in the annual race, which began in 2006.

The four-time top-10 Tour de France finisher endured, but he's far from healed. He's walking with a prominent limp, including emerging on the finish podium after the stage to receive a special award for the race's most courageous rider.

Leipheimer's recovery training occurred on Sonoma County's backroads, the undulating, sometimes steep asphalt canvas he used to build his career since moving Northern California in 1996.

Yet the comfort of riding on the roads he knows well wasn't enough to offset the pain from his injury.

"That always sucks, especially when you suffer on your own roads," said Leipheimer, racing in his first season for the Belgium-based Omega Pharma-Quick-Step team. "It was good and bad, but I'm happy to be here."

As the race's three-time winner, Leipheimer has been a long-time spokesperson for the event. He has touted Santa Rosa as the grand departure city almost since the event's 2006 inception.

Tour of California organizers awarded the start to Santa Rosa for this year's Tour after the race's first venture to the Lake Tahoe region took the city off the route itinerary in 2011.

In the past year, Santa Rosa's marketing presence intensified.

Leipheimer subsequently became increasingly involved. He geared his season toward a hopeful fourth title after his runner-up last year to former teammate Chris Horner.

Leipheimer's mishap in Spain, of course, jeopardized his plans. But as he detailed in the pre-race press conference, he wouldn't have been comfortable watching the race from the sidelines.

As the Sunday's opening stage unfolded it wasn't in circumstances Leipheimer would have predicated.

"It's not what I envisioned when we found out two years ago that we'd be hosting the overall start of the Amgen Tour of California," he said.

"But considering the circumstances, I think I should be proud. Making that group on Coleman Valley (the day's late stage climb), ... that says something."

Beyond hometown sentiment, Leipheimer's return also served as a morale booster and the beginning of his more lofty season goals, most notably doing well at the Tour de France beginning in late June and in the Summer Olympics in early August. Leipheimer was the Olympic bronze medalist in the individual time trial in 2008.

"My last race was Volta Catalunya in March," said Leipheimer. "And when you're out of competition for a while, it's a little foreign to be back in the peloton and racing through corners and down the (roads) with 120 people. So as time passes, I'll get more comfortable.

"I think that participating in the Amgen Tour of California is of the utmost importance to be good in July in the Tour de France and beyond — hopefully the Olympics," he said.

"There's a lot of races left in my season, and I think that was part of my motivation, to try and recover as fast as possible and train as much as I could, as much as my leg would allow me to, in order to be fit enough to take the start here, and finish, and benefit from the race."

Leipheimer achieved that goal Sunday, and the race and his hometown benefited as well.