Another stage down in California, and another hard day in the saddle for Astana. The pressure seems to be slowly building on Johan Bruyneel?s team but so far they?re coping with it.

And even though tomorrow?s parcours is one of the toughest of the race there are few who expect them to crack.

Today a break was finally allowed to stay away as the composition suited the teams that have so far been controlling this year?s race. Rinaldo Nocentini of AG2R was the benefactor of the peloton?s benevolence as he led in the group of three riders that had escaped their seven companions in the final stages.

Despite only having five riders left in the race AG2R pulled off a masterstroke by getting two riders in today?s break. They used their numerical advantage to great affect as once the final three were away the Italian could let Pieter Weening and Hayden Roulston do the bulk of the work in the knowledge that team mate Martin Elminger was behind.

This he did, and it was what saw him beat Roulston who on paper was the fastest finisher of the three.

The initial break of ten had taken a while to establish itself as what looked like one of the race?s easier stages turned in to a tough day as attack after attack tried to build a lead early on.

At one point Michael Rogers was away in a small group, but with the Australian only 45 seconds down on Levi Leipheimer in the general classification there was little chance of that move succeeding.

Eventually a group of ten riders who?s names pleased the puppeteers in the team cars behind were allowed to go. Astana weren?t the only controlling factor, but the were the biggest. It was a flashback to Armstrong?s days of dominance at the Tour de France, when US Postal and latterly Discovery Channel could ride seemingly at will at a pace that cancelled out any attacks until one went clear with contents that they were happy with.

That air of unpredictability that surrounded the peloton last year in races such as Paris Nice and the Tour de France, when no single team could control all others, seems to have evaporated here in America.

Astana were eventually left to set the pace the rest of the day as all the sprinters? teams were represented in the break, another factor that meant today?s break worked.

At one point the lead opened up to 4-30 minutes, but with George HIncapie and Frank Schleck both in the group and only six-and-a-half minutes behind Leipheimer, Astana had to start bringing the time down.

Lifting the pace on the five finishing circuits in Pasadena the bunch eventually crossed the line 2-19 minutes after Nocentini?s tactical manoeuvrings bagged him the stage and AG2R?s first victory of the year.

Levi Leipheimer pulls on another Tour of California's leaders' jersey in Pasadena, near LAAmerican Levi Leipheimer has once again dominated this race. Here he pulls on what should be his penultimate yellow jersey in Pasadena. Picture by Graham Watson.

Tour of California stage seven: results
1. Rinaldo Nocentini (Ita) AG2R La Mondiale 143km in 3-24-43

2. Hayden Roulston (NZl) Cervelo
3. Pieter Weening (Ned) Rabobank both at same time
4. Markus Zberg (Sui) BMC Racing at 7 seconds
5. Martin Elminger (Sui) AG2R La Mondiale
6. Chris Baldwin (USA) Rock Racing
7. George HIncapie (USA) Columbia-Highroad
8. Fränk Schleck (Lux) Saxo Bank
9. Christian Vande Velde (USA) Garmin-Slipstream
10. Addy Engels (Ned) Quick Step all at same time
British
40. Mark Cavendish (GB) Columbia-Highroad

General classification after stage seven
1. Levi Leipheimer (USA) Astana 27-39-02

2. David Zabriskie (USA) Garmin-Slipstream at 36 seconds
3. Michael Rogers (Aus) Columbia-Highroad at 46 seconds
4. Jens Voigt (Ger) Saxo Bank at 1-10
5. Thomas Lövkvist (Swe) Columbia-Highroad at 1-29
6. Lance Armstrong (USA) Astana at 1-46
7. Robert Gesink (Ned) at 1-54
8. Janez Brajkovic (Slo) Astana at 1-59
9. Chris Horner (USA) Astana at 2-13
10. Francisco Mancebo (Esp) Rock Racing at 2-15
British
68. Mark Cavendish (GB) Columbia-Highroad at 31-58

imageScenery on stage seven

imageGeorge Hincapie heads the escape group

imageAstana work to keep the escape group’s time gap down


2009 TOUR OF CALIFORNIA: LINKS

STAGE REPORTS
Stage seven: Nocentini wins in Pasedena
Leipheimer wins time trial to cement Tour of California lead
Stage five: Two in a row for Cavendish
Stage four: Cavendish battles over hills to wins stage
Stage three: Hushovd sprints home
Stage two: Leipheimer takes the lead
Stage one: Mancebo’s stage one win raises Puerto demons
Prologue: Cancellara Express derails the Armstrong show

NEWS & FEATURES
Mancebo crashes out of KOM lead
Comment: What’s in a victory salute?
Cavendish rises to second in list of all-time British pro winners
Armstrong’s time trial bike handed in to police
Boonen set to ride Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne after Tour of California
Cancellara abandons Tour of California
Armstrong’s bike stolen in California
Cavendish poised to take leaders jersey
Tour of California blog
Armstrong and Astana train for Tour of California
Mark Cavendish: Rider Profile
Lance Armstrong: Rider Profile

PHOTOS
Stage five photo gallery
Stage four photo gallery
Stage three photo gallery
Stage two photo gallery
Stage one photo gallery
Prologue photo gallery
Cycling Weekly photo gallery

2009 TOUR OF CALIFORNIA PREVIEW
2009 Tour of California race preview
Start list: all the riders
Team list: all the squads

2009 TOUR OF CALIFORNIA STAGES
Saturday, February 14 Prologue details
Sunday, February 15 Stage one details
Monday, February 16 Stage two details
Tuesday, February 17 Stage three details
Wednesday, February 18 Stage four details
Thursday February 19 Stage five details
Friday, February 20 Stage six details
Saturday, February 21 Stage seven details
Sunday, February 22 Stage eight details

EXTERNAL LINKS
Tour of California official website