ATLANTA - Two weeks ago, Janez Brajkovic wasn't even sure he'd be riding in the Tour de Georgia.
On Sunday, the 23-year-old Slovenian held on for the biggest win of his young cycling career.
With help from his Discovery Channel teammates, Brajkovic overcame a flat tire and preserved a 12-second win over Christian Vande Velde in the final stage of the weeklong event, a circuit race through the streets of downtown Atlanta.
Brajkovic was stricken by illness and fever earlier this month, making him doubtful for the race. But he recovered in time, then pulled away from more prominent teammates such as George Hincapie, 2005 Tour de Georgia winner Tom Danielson and Levi Leipheimer, coming off a victory in the Tour of California.
Never miss a local story.
"This is the biggest win of my career so far," Brajkovic said. "I was not even planning to be here, so it's really an amazing victory."
Brajkovic relied on his teammates to pull him through, especially when his rear tire went flat with just less than five laps to go on the 7 1/2-mile course.
Brian Vandborg stopped quickly to switch tires so the leader didn't lose much time. Then, the remaining Discovery Channel riders dropped to the back of the peloton, picked up their teammate and made sure to protect the 12-second lead he had coming into the finale.
"To win the race by myself would be impossible," said Brajkovic, who rides for the team once led by Lance Armstrong. "My team was just amazing. I have to say thank you to them for helping me."
On Wednesday, Brajkovic hooked up with a breakaway that whittled away most of the contenders in the third stage of the weeklong event, then surged to the overall lead the following day during a time trial up Lookout Mountain. He zealously guarded his narrow advantage over the final three days.
Juan Jose Haedo of Argentina passed American Fred Rodriguez with less than 50 meters to go win the final stage, nosing in front of a huge pack that included 64 other cyclists. That was a flip-flop of Saturday's stage, when Rodriguez edged Haedo in a race from Lake Lanier to Stone Mountain Park.
"There was a little bit of a headwind. You had to wait as long as you could to make your move," Haedo said. "I think I waited long enough."
Vande Velde overcame some of the bitterness from more than a decade ago, when he failed to make the U.S. Olympic team for the 1996 Atlanta Games. Track cycling was held in a temporary velodrome at Stone Mountain.
"It would be a lie to say I didn't have a lot of memories going around that park yesterday," the 30-year-old Vande Velde said. "I actually thought of quitting after putting so much into making the Olympics, then not making that team."
Once he fixed that pesky flat, Brajkovic quickly worked his way back into the lead pack, finishing with the same time as the stage winner (2 hours, 25 minutes, 30 seconds) and ensuring that Vande Velde, who was in the same group, couldn't make up any time.
Hincapie shrugged off the team's rescue effort, while Brajkovic said it took so little time to get back in the race that he was never seriously concerned.
"That's just part of racing," Hincapie said.
Still, it provided a little drama on the final day.
"The leader was in trouble, but his team brought him back," said Steve Johnson, the chief executive officer of USA Cycling. "In hindsight, the result was not in question. But for a few seconds, it was hanging in doubt. That's the way racing is supposed to be."
Brajkovic's overall time for the 658-mile race through Georgia and briefly into neighboring Tennessee was 25:26:33. Vande Velde was second, the only other cyclist within 3 minutes of the winner. Spain's David Canada was third in 25:29:37.
There's still plenty of doubt about whether the Tour de Georgia will return for its sixth run in 2008. Organizers struggled to come up with sponsorship money in the post-Armstrong era and conceded they had not yet covered a projected deficit.
"It's one day off," said Chris Aronhalt, the tour's executive director, "and back to the drawing board."