Rinaldo Nocentini of Italy lunged ahead of New Zealand's Hayden Roulston at the finish line to win Stage 7 of the Tour of California on Saturday.
|Rinaldo Nocentini, riding for AG2R on the right, leads the charge [GALLO/GETTY]
American Levi Leipheimer of Astana retained his overall lead after the 88.9-mile leg from Santa Clarita to Pasadena's historic Rose Bowl stadium.
Nocentini of AG2R La Mondiale won by less than a bike length, finishing in 3 hours, 24.43 seconds.
Rabobank's Pieter Weening of the Netherlands was third in the three-man sprint to the finish.
"The mountains were hard for me. I crashed on the second day,'' Nocentini said.
"I focused more on the stage win and the victory was very, very important.''
Armstrong, who began a comeback last month, finished 44th - a gap of 2:19 behind the leaders - as he rode in support of Leipheimer, his Astana teammate.
The seven-time Tour de France winner remained sixth overall.
"The guys were so solid today. Like a machine on the circuits,'' Leipheimer wrote on his online Twitter feed after the race.
"The crowds were nothing short of amazing. Thanks to you all for coming out. The peloton was psyched,'' Armstrong wrote on his Twitter feed.
He did not talk with reporters while signing autographs before getting into a car and leaving.
Armstrong took a brief break for a wheel change on Angeles Crest Highway and made his way through the trailing cars to get back to the peloton.
BMC Racing's Markus Zberg of Switzerland was fourth, 7 seconds behind Nocentini, Roulston and Weening. Nocentini's teammate, Martin Elmiger of Switzerland, was fifth.
American George Hincapie of Columbia-Highroad won the cold, rainy Pasadena stage last year, when it was the finale for the tour.
He was seventh on Saturday, one spot behind countryman Chris Baldwin of Rock Racing.
"Some hellacious transfers in this race. Bummed Ghincapie didn't get the "w'' today, he looked strong,'' Armstrong wrote.
American Christian Vande Velde of Garmin-Slipstream was ninth.
Leipheimer in control
|Astana's Leipheimer wearing the yellow jersey [GALLO/GETTY]
Leipheimer completed his fifth day as the tour's overall leader, with a time of 27 hours, 39 minutes, 2 seconds - 36 seconds ahead of American David Zabriskie of Garmin-Slipstream.
Aussie Michael Rogers of Columbia-Highroad was third, followed by German Jens Voigt of Saxo Bank and Swede Thomas Lovkvist of Columbia-Highroad.
There was no change among the top nine positions on Saturday.
Italian Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas moved into 10th, replacing Spain's Francisco Mancebo, who crashed.
American Floyd Landis, on the comeback trail like Armstrong, was 67th Saturday and stood 32nd overall.
Landis was stripped of his 2006 Tour de France victory following a doping scandal that resulted in a two-year ban and protracted court fight.
"I've missed a lot about racing and never really did it because I wanted a lot of attention. I like bicycle racing for the challenge of it,'' he said at his first news conference since returning.
"It's certainly touching to have so many people out there cheering for us, not just me. To see that in the US and this close to home is very satisfying.''
Landis, who races for OUCH, said his team has no current plans to compete in Europe, where he was unsure the rules would allow him.
"As far as whether I'd be welcomed back, it's hard to say,'' he said.
"After two years of trying to figure out how this exactly works, I'm not clear on a lot of things.''
|Fans run with the peloton [GALLO/GETTY]
Ten riders led a breakaway for about an hour, then nearly all of them took turns attacking in a cat-and-mouse game while traversing five hilly circuits of 4.7 miles each around the Rose Bowl.
"Everybody is coming out and trying to get their stage win, their piece of the pie,'' Leipheimer said afterward.
"I hope they left something in the tank for tomorrow. I expect some of my teammates will have to do a lot of work early. It's going to be a big battle.''
The seventh stage opened with a gradual 25-mile climb out of Santa Clarita, where riders were pushing the pace and attacking without a settled tempo.
They raced through the town of Acton to a 4,906-foot climb of Millcreek Summit, where snow topped the San Gabriel Mountains and lay along the roadside.
Some fans carrying American flags dashed alongside the leaders at the top of the summit, with several shirtless men getting within a couple feet of the pack.
A few riders grabbed newspapers and stuffed them under their jerseys for warmth on the twisting gradual descent.
Peddling furiously, the riders descended from the second-highest elevation in the race's four-year history to a 15-mile trek along Angeles Crest Highway and through a tunnel before dropping down to the Rose Bowl.
Mancebo, winner of Stage 1 for Rock Racing, hit a rock and crashed during the descent along Angeles Crest Highway, when riders were cruising at speeds of 50 mph.
He sustained a concussion and a broken hand and elbow, team owner Michael Ball said.
The race concludes Sunday with Stage 8, a 96.8-mile ride from Rancho Bernardo to Escondido near San Diego.