CLOVIS, Calif. -- Mark Cavendish won the mountainous fourth stage and Levi Leipheimer moved closer to his third straight Tour of California title after finishing in the pack Wednesday.
Cavendish edged Tom Boonen by less than half a bike length in the 115.4-mile road race from Merced to Clovis. Juan Jose Haedo of Argentina was third.
Seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, who began the day in fourth place, also finished in the main field. Armstrong remained 30 seconds behind Leipheimer.
"It was a hard race and it was aggressive racing," said Armstrong, who was informed about halfway through the stage that his bike stolen four days ago in Sacramento was found. "It wasn't that easy today. All and all it was a tough day."
Leipheimer, of Santa Rosa, Calif., kept his 24-second advantage over Australian Michael Rogers. American David Zabriskie remained third overall, trailing by 28 seconds.
The fourth stage included five climbs and advanced into the Sierra Nevada. Race organizers cleared ankle-deep snow in some segments prior to the stage.
Kim Kirchen of Luxembourg, three-time former world titlist Oscar Freire of Spain and Scott Nydam of Sebastopol, Calif., all abandoned with undetermined injuries after crashing during the stage.
Leipheimer, who took the overall lead after a second-place finish in the second stage 2, avoided crashing and rode while surrounded by teammates.
"The first 1½ hours were blazing," he said. "Even Lance took some monster pulls and brought back four of five guys on his own. It's great to have such a strong team."
Three riders, including current U.S. road titlist Tyler Hamilton, built a 6-minute margin after riding together for several hours but were caught with less than a mile left in the stage.
The nine-day event continues Thursday with the 134.3-mile stage from Visalia to Paso Robles, the longest leg of the event. The fourth-year race concludes Sunday in Escondido, Calif.