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Leipheimer Set To Defend USA Pro Cycling Challenge Title

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(L-R) Levi Leipheimer riding for Team Radioshack in first place, Tejay Van Garderen riding for Team HTC-Highroad in the best young rider's jersey in third place and Christian Vande Velde riding for Team Garmin-Cervelo in second place celebrate with champagne on the podium for the 2011 USA Pro Cycling Challenge from Golden to Denver on August 28, 2011 in Denver, Colorado.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

(L-R) Levi Leipheimer riding for Team Radioshack in first place, Tejay Van Garderen riding for Team HTC-Highroad in the best young rider’s jersey in third place and Christian Vande Velde riding for Team Garmin-Cervelo in second place celebrate with champagne on the podium for the 2011 USA Pro Cycling Challenge from Golden to Denver on August 28, 2011 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

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DURANGO, Colo. (AP) – Nearly five months after breaking his leg in a training accident in Spain, Levi Leipheimer will begin defense of his USA Pro Cycling Challenge title Monday in hopes of claiming his first overall victory this season.

Leipheimer, who is from Santa Rosa, Calif., and rides for the Belgium-based Omega Pharma Quick-Step team, will be among the favorites in the seven-day, 683-mile race that will include 126 riders from 16 teams.

The race’s second edition, which will include more than 40,000 feet of climbing, begins with a 125.6-mile road race from Durango to Telluride. The riders will climb to Lizard Head Pass at more than 10,000 feet before a final 15-mile descent to the finish.

A motorist hit Leipheimer, a four-time top-10 Tour de France finisher, on April 1. He returned to competition in May at the Tour of California, a race he’s won three times.

But Leipheimer wasn’t in top form and faltered in the mountains and in his time trial specialty. In late June, Leipheimer competed in the Tour de France for the 10th time. But he crashed often in the first week and finished 31st overall, tying his career-worst effort.

“Any injury is difficult to come back from. That was one of the hardest in my career,” said Leipheimer, 38, who last year won three multi-day races and has claimed at least one overall race title every season since 2005. “You have no choice but to work as hard as you can and come back as strong as you can. I feel good and I’m looking forward to racing here in Colorado.”

Leipheimer showed last week he’s returning to top condition, winning the mountainous final stage of the Tour of Utah with a late-race solo breakaway.

Italian Vincenzo Nibali, third last month in the Tour de France, and 2011 Tour de France winner Cadel Evans of Australia are also expected title contenders.

George Hincapie of Greenville, S.C., who completed the Tour de France last month for a record-tying 16th time, will participate in the event as the final race of his 19-year professional career.

The USA Pro Cycling Challenge will conclude Sunday with a short individual time trial in Denver.

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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