Atkins up with the best in California race

Former Christchurch cyclist Josh Atkins is rubbing shoulders with the rock stars of cycling in the Tour of California – and showing many of them how it's done.

After yesterday's fourth stage, Atkins, 19, was 10th on general classification with cycling heavy-hitters Jens Voigt, of Germany, Tom Boonen, of Belgium, Levi Leipheimer, George Hincapie and Chris Horner, of the United States, and Cameron Meyer and Robbie McEwen, of Australia, behind him.

Atkins has worn the under-23 leaders' jersey for the last three stages. He had to hand it over yesterday to Dutch rider Wilco Kelderman, but Atkins is only a second behind. Peter Sagan, of Slovakia, is the tour leader.

Atkins is riding for Bontrager Livestrong, an under-23 development team run by 2004 Olympic road-race bronze medallist Axel Merckx, son of Eddy Merckx, a five-time Tour de France winner.

Atkins, who won the Tour of Southland last year, has surprised even his coach, Mark Lucas, of Blenheim.

He said the individual time trial that starts at 8am (NZ time) today will be a critical stage for Atkins. "He's a pretty good time trialer. He's won the New Zealand under-17 and under-19 time trials. The big thing will be how tired he is going to be.

"Regardless of how he does, it's amazing that he is still in the top 10 on general classification after four stages of what is regarded as the toughest tour outside Europe.

"Some of those people behind him will be key riders for their teams in the Tour de France in a few weeks. Voigt will be a strongman for RadioShack-Nissan, Boonen for Omega Pharma. And Sagan, who is leading the race, is a potential stage winner on the Tour de France," Lucas said.

He said Atkins had a good buildup to the California race, but no luck in his two most recent events, the Tour of Normandy and under-23 Nations Cup.

"He had punctures and crashes just at the wrong times, but he has shown his ability on this tour."

Lucas said Atkins' ultimate aim was to get a contract with one of the big teams on the international circuit.

The Press