Peterson heeds Garmin's call with win

Tom Peterson, left, caught Levi Leipheimer in the closing moments of Monday's Stage 2. Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. -- At Garmin-Slipstream's season-launching party in Boulder, Colo., last fall, director Jonathan Vaughters drove home the point that simply being competitive was no longer enough for a squad recently elevated to Pro Tour status -- the highest rung of the ladder in pro cycling.

Vaughters told a packed house of sponsors and fans that his riders, veterans and fledgling talents alike, had been "so happy to be in the mix ... we forgot to go ahead and win. We can win a hell of a lot more than we did last year."

On Monday, one of Garmin's youngest riders took that challenge to heart.

Tom Peterson, a lanky, reserved 22-year-old from North Bend, Wash., was the only rider able to stay with a rampaging Levi Leipheimer on the last climb of a wet, frigid Stage 2. Peterson glued himself to Leipheimer's rear wheel all the way over Bonny Doon Road and down the descent into this bohemian enclave and swung around him at the last minute for the stage win.

Leipheimer stayed in the saddle, content in the knowledge that he had a secure lead in the overall standings and an excellent chance to repeat as race champion for the third straight year. His Astana team is more than qualified to defend his yellow jersey, leaving Leipheimer free to focus on Friday's potentially decisive time trial.

"[Peterson] made it to the top, he made it with me where others didn't," a satisfied Leipheimer said after the 116-mile stage. "You could say he deserves the win. You could say I deserve it, as well, but that's just how it goes."

It was the first professional win for Peterson, a man of few words and obvious talent whose tastes in reading tend toward martial arts and warrior philosophy. Asked what the victory meant, he allowed, "That there'll be many more."

Leipheimer now has a 24-second margin on the next-closest man, Team Columbia leader Michael Rogers of Australia, who led a sizable chase group that came in 21 seconds after the two leaders. That group also included Garmin's David Zabriskie, who stands in third place overall, four seconds behind Rogers, and Lance Armstrong, who moved up a spot to fourth, 30 seconds off Leipheimer's time. Astana holds five of the top 10 slots in the overall standings.

Conditions were dismal for the second straight day. Much of the route, which began with a passage over the Golden Gate Bridge and continued down coastal Highway 1, was pelted by monsoon-like rain and buffeted by crosswinds.

Once the riders deviated inland toward the evergreen-and-eucalyptus covered hills on the way to Santa Cruz, they encountered sunshine, hail and more rain. "Turn the shower on as cold as it gets and stand under it for four hours," Leipheimer said of the general feel of his ride, which actually took more than five hours.

Assisted by Astana pacesetter Yaroslav Popovych, Leipheimer accelerated at the base of the Bonny Doon climb and eventually motored by all the riders in an early breakaway group except for Peterson.

"From then on, it was like a Hail Mary," said the 35-year-old Leipheimer, a Montana native. "Once you're committed, you've just got to go for it." The attack enabled him to overtake Rock Racing's Francisco Mancebo, who entered Monday ahead by 62 seconds.

Peterson, a climbing specialist who is accustomed to raw, damp sessions on the bike in the Pacific Northwest, compensated for a star-crossed couple of days with his tenacious performance. He missed his start time in Saturday's prologue time trial due to a miscommunication and lost two unnecessary minutes, then did not make the lead group Sunday and saw his chances at a high overall finish fade.

"He was really upset about the way the race had gone, just inconsolable, so I sat him down and told him that a stage race is long and you can't give up," said team leader Christian Vande Velde. "He was hell-bent on making that breakaway today."

Vaughters, who recruited Peterson for his junior development team several years ago and also serves as his personal coach, said Peterson is strikingly unintimidated by the kind of situation he was in Monday. "You could tell by the look in his eye -- he could have flatted two K from the finish and he would have found a way to win," the director said.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.