California - Dutchman Robert Gesink conquered the seventh stage of the Tour of California, holding off a fierce mountain challenge from Jhon Atapuma to grab the yellow jersey.
Gesink, of the Rabobank team, outduelled Atapuma, of Colombia, in the final stretch of a steep mountain climb to win the 126km stage in a time of three hours, 37 minutes, eight seconds.
"It was incredible," said Gesink, who broke his leg badly in a training crash late last year. "Everybody was suffering all day. In the end I was happy to take the stage. It worked out perfectly."
The pair played a cat-and-mouse game over the final three quarters of a kilometre, trading the lead back and forth before Gesink used one final sprint to pull away and claim the victory.
"It was pretty close. Only in the last kilometre did I catch this little guy (Atapuma)," said Gesink, pointing to the Colombian sitting beside him at the post-race news conference.
Atapuma's Colombia team-mate Fabio Duarte was third, 14 seconds adrift.
Gesink has a 46-second lead in the overall standings ahead of stage six winner Dave Zabriskie heading into the final 68.5 kilometre stage from Beverly Hills to downtown Los Angeles.
For awhile it looked like it was going to come down to a two man race to the finish on Saturday between Atapuma and defending race titlist Chris Horner. Horner finished sixth in the stage.
But when Atapuma sprinted ahead and Horner dropped back that opened the door for Gesink to make his final push up the winding steep switchbacks that lead to the finish at the base of the ski lift for the Mt. Baldy Ski Resort.
Gesink, who finished fifth in the 2010 Tour de France, had to settle for watching the race on the Internet last year. He knew the mountain terrain was going to be tough, but it went even beyond his expectations.
"A few of my teammates rode last year and so they explained the climb to me," he said. "You can't really tell just how steep it is by watching it on a computer."
Atapuma, riding for Colombia-Coldeportes, was second in the same time.
"It was a hard day," Atapuma said. "When I attacked I was looking at (Chris) Horner. I got away from Horner but I couldn't get the stage win."
Gesink shattered his right leg in four places in the training crash eight months ago in Holland. The rehabilitation was unlike any other physical training he had ever gone through.
"After the crash I could ride my bike before I could walk," he said. "To do the surgery they had to cut through the muscle. I got a big pin and a lot of screws in there.
"I could ride but walking was a whole different thing.
"I had to build up from zero. There was no muscle at all in my right leg. When I started riding again my right leg was much smaller than my other leg. They say it takes a year before the legs will be the same size again."
Gesink says this stage win gives him more confidence for upcoming Tour de France.
"The Tour de France is the most important race in the world," he said. "Last year a lot of guys crashed out in the first few weeks. A lot of things can happen."
Top finishers of Saturday's 126km seventh stage in the Tour of California:
1. Robert Gesink (NED) (Rabobank) 3hrs, 37mins, 8secs
2. Jhon Atapuma (COL) at s.t.
3. Fabio Duarte (COL) 14
4. Joseph Dombrowski (USA) 18
5. Thomas Danielson (USA) 26
6. Christopher Horner (USA) 38
7. Wilco Kelderman (NED) 1:04
8. Tiago Machado (POR) 1:06
9. Levi Leipheimer (USA) 1:08
10. Tejay Van Garderen (USA) 1:22
1. Robert Gesink (NED) 29:14:52
2. David Zabriskie (USA) at 46
3. Thomas Danielson (USA) 54
4. Tejay Van Garderen (USA) 1:17
5. Fabio Duarte (COL) 1:36