Messy start for riders at Tour of Cali

SANTA ROSA, Calif. -- It was a day of retro racing at the Tour of California in more ways than one.

The peloton was battered by a lashing downpour and high winds for most of the 107.5-mile Stage 1 from Davis to Santa Rosa -- storms that left the cyclists drenched and shivering, and grounded the race's airborne audio and video transmitters. Riders were left largely in the dark about who was where on the course, just like the old days.

Weather also prompted organizers to alter plans for the finish out of safety concerns. Instead of sending the riders careening around three tricky 3.1-mile circuits in downtown Santa Rosa at top speed, officials decided to give the stage win to the first man to cross the finish line at the start of the first loop. That happened to be Spain's Francisco Mancebo of the Rock Racing team, who went up the road with an early three-man breakaway and eventually shed his two companions. His solo arrival also stirred up some memories from the past.

Mancebo was the leader of the French Ag2R team in July 2006, when the Operacion Puerto blood doping scandal came to a head on the eve of the Tour de France. His name, along with several dozen others, was linked to the case, and he was one of nine riders suspended by their teams under heavy pressure from Tour organizers. He declared before leaving the Tour start in Strasbourg, France, that he would quit the sport.

Ag2R subsequently suspended Mancebo, and he never rode for them again. However, like most of the riders whose names initially surfaced in the Puerto case, he was never charged with anything. Mancebo changed his mind about racing, and competed for lower-tier teams in Spain and Portugal before signing with Rock for this season. On Sunday, through an interpreter, he denied ever having quit the sport, and said he had rediscovered the joys of professional cycling.

Mancebo's stage win gave him the overall lead in the race -- he's 1:02 ahead of defending champion Levi Leipheimer of Astana -- and also forced members of the Tour of California brain trust to relive their most painful decision.

Last year, the race barred three Rock riders from the start because their Puerto cases were still deemed "open" by cycling's governing body, the UCI. Andrew Messick, president of AEG Sports, which owns the race, said that in the current absence of any way to resolve the Puerto cases (the legal file was recently reopened for the second time), the organization elected to allow riders implicated in the case to compete.

"There's no structure by which people can be convicted or acquitted," he told reporters, adding that he had consulted with the UCI before making a decision. "It became clear there was no progress. We have no grounds to prevent people from racing."

Messick later showed ESPN.com an e-mail from UCI policy manager Anne Gripper endorsing that decision.

"I believe in our [drug] testing program," Messick said. "I believe he's [Mancebo] clean, and today he was the strongest man."

Meanwhile, back on the road, the men who hope to compete for the overall race win lamented the fact that the lack of communication hampered strategy for much of the day.

"We didn't know any of the time gaps," Leipheimer said. "We would have had guys chasing before that climb in the middle, and we would have been a little more urgent about it."

Mancebo opened up a margin of as much as 12 minutes before the peloton began whittling away. On the day's last climb, Astana put down its trademark sledgehammer with American support rider Chris Horner setting a torrid pace. By the aborted end of the stage, an 18-man chase group that included Leipheimer had closed the gap to just over a minute.

Leipheimer said he thinks he can recoup that time, especially in Friday's time trial. Other race contenders who remain within striking distance are Garmin-Slipstream's David Zabriskie and Tom Danielson, Team Columbia's Michael Rogers, Saxo Bank's Andy Schleck and Leipheimer's Astana teammate Lance Armstrong, all of whom are within 18 seconds of Leipheimer.

Armstrong, who is now in fifth place overall, 1:05 shy of Mancebo, said Sunday was extraordinarily taxing, especially following three years of retirement. "That's one of the hardest days I've ever had to do," he said. "A year ago, I was in St. Barts on the beach, I don't know."

The seven-time Tour de France winner had a bizarre start to his day when he was informed upon awakening that thieves had broken into Astana's equipment trailer overnight and stolen four bikes, including his time trial bike -- which will cost five figures to replace.

Armstrong shrugged off the heist, saying it won't affect his performance in the Stage 6 time trial.

"I suspect that bike will come back," he said. "There's no way you can steal a one-of-a-kind bike unless you keep it to yourself, or burn it. My spare bike, which I've actually spent more time on, is set up just the same and ready to go, so I'll be all right."

Two other prominent riders had much worse days. Saxo Bank's Fabian Cancellara, who began the day in the race lead by virtue of his victory in the prologue time trial, abandoned at the first feed zone on the course, weakened by a high fever. Floyd Landis, the OUCH team leader back from a doping suspension, had a flat tire heading into Santa Rosa and lost more than four minutes to the leaders.

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