Peter Sagan won his second stage in three days, with a fearsomely effective uphill sprint into Boulogne

Words by Edward Pickering in Boulogne-sur-Mer

Tuesday July 3, 2012

Peter Sagan got his priorities right as he crossed the finish line of stage three of the Tour in Boulogne, in the shadow of the town’s famous Basilica de Notre Dame de l’Immaculée Conception. He crossed himself first, then, religious duties fulfilled, executed the victory celebration known as the “running man,” arms pumping furiously, before raising his arms in triumph.

That Sagan had the time and energy to do three separate victory celebrations as he rode the final 20 metres of the stage shows how dominant the young Slovak is right now. Sagan is clearly having fun at his first Tour de France. He’s winning for fun, at least.

The Slovak is as close to unbeatable on uphill finishes as Philippe Gilbert seemed this time last year, perhaps more so. He was as calm and ruthless as he had been in Seraing at the end of stage one in manoeuvring himself to the front of the bunch as they emerged from the chaos of the final 30 kilometres and tackled the steep 700-metre long climb to the finish line. Once he’d started sprinting, the result was not in doubt. Edvald Boasson Hagen, who was supposed one day to be the rider Sagan already is, ground over the line in second place, while another Slovakian Peter, overall contender Velits, was an ominously strong third.

The Tour is four days old, and we’ve learned the following: Cancellara is still the dominant in the short time trials; Cavendish is the best sprinter in the world, maybe the finest sprinter the Tour has ever seen; and Peter Sagan is, at 22, a rider of astonishing maturity and strength. It’s too early to consider Sagan as a master of his art in the same way as Cancellara and Cavendish, but it’s only a matter of time, perhaps only a few weeks.

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To paraphrase Mark Twain, the Tour de France doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. In 2011, there was a dominant uphill sprinter: Philippe Gilbert. Sagan is the 2012 version. In 2011, Thor Hushovd took the yellow jersey early in the race, defended it on a finish deemed too tough for him and kept it longer than anybody ever expected. Fabian Cancellara, who finished fourth today, looks like he will keep the race lead until the Planche des Belles Filles climb on Saturday (and don’t even be surprised if he somehow carries it into Sunday). 2011 and 2012 both saw extraordinary daring manoeuvres win the first sprint of the race, Tyler Farrar in Redon last year, and Mark Cavendish in Tournai yesterday.

There was also a familiar feel to the early break of the day. Michael Morkov of Saxo Bank went away for the third stage running, feeling that his garish polka dot jersey and helmet combo wasn’t making him conspicuous enough – he had to be off the front as well. With him: Andriy Grivko of Astana, Europcar’s Giovanni Bernaudeau, Ruben Plaza of Euskaltel and Sébastien Minard of Ag2r. Morkov has yet to spend a day in the bunch.

Five minutes was all the lead they would be allowed. The bunch, mindful of the rat-tat-tat of climbs into Boulogne, over the Monts du Boulonnais, was visibly nervous in the final hour – strung out at the front, being eroded from within by crashes. It was possible to see which teams had a serious agenda today by who was taking responsibility at the front. BMC, Sky and RadioShack, defending their GC riders’ interests, alternated at the front with Liquigas, the team with the most to gain from a straight uphill sprint at the finish.

But while there was relative order at the front, in the maelstrom behind the first 20 riders, crashes split the peloton repeatedly. Thomas Voeckler, fourth last year, was abandoned to his fate in a large group left seven minutes behind, while Garmin’s Tom Danielson also lost significant time. Jose Joaquin Rojas and Kanstantin Siutsov fared worse – injuries sustained in their crashes put them out of the race.

The solidarity of the escapers was broken by Grivko’s aggressive riding, and the wearing process of the hills. Bernaudeau was the first to be dropped, followed by Minard and Plaza. Morkov hung on for long enough to claim points on the Côte de Quéhen, the fourth climb of the day, before cracking horribly on the next. Grivko was swallowed up soon afterwards.

Sylvain Chavanel, who won the French championships on these very roads in 2011, made a clever attack with 5.5 kilometres to go. One of the better bike handlers in the bunch, he attacked just before a corner, and carried his acceleration through, giving him a 15-second gap almost immediately. But hubris was his undoing as he took the next sharp corner, a dead turn with 2.2 kilometres to go, too fast. His lead cut, he still resisted his pursuers, led by RadioShack, until a hundred metres into the final climb, but by then, Sagan had moved up.

It was chaos going into the sprint. A crash wiped out half the group, then one rider shot off up the déviation for the team cars. But one rider kept a cool head in the disorder: Sagan.

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