Sagan wins third stage of Tour de France

BOULOGNE-SUR-MER, France — Pumping his arms in victory, Peter Sagan of Slovakia won the crash-marred third stage of the Tour de France on Tuesday as cycling’s showcase race returned to its home country.

Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland remained the overall leader for a fourth straight day. The cyclists, who opened in Belgium, completed a 122-mile ride from Orchies that featured five small climbs to an uphill finish in the fishing port of Boulogne-sur-Mer.

Sagan, at 22 one of cycling’s brightest stars, won his second stage in his debut Tour by bolting from the splintered pack with less than 300 meters left. He crossed the line several lengths — and one second — ahead of runner-up Edvald Boasson Hagen of Norway and third-place finisher Peter Velits of Slovakia.

Sagan enjoys putting on a show for fans. He churned his arms, as a runner might, in a nod to the title character in the movie “Forrest Gump.”

“It’s a thing I’d discussed with my teammates about what kind of gesture I’d do on the line,” said Sagan, who rides for Liquigas-Cannondale. “Everybody said, `Do a Forrest Gump’ because when he was told to run, he ran. And when I’m told to win, I win.”

Sagan also showed a humbler side, saying he felt honored to ride alongside the likes of Vincenzo Nibali and two-time Giro d’Italia winner Ivan Basso on the Italian squad.

“With Basso, I feel like I’m on the level of someone who would shine his shoes,” Sagan said.

With Sagan’s Stage 1 victory Sunday he became the youngest rider to win a Tour stage since Lance Armstrong in 1993 at 21.

“You’ve got to give Sagan credit for the way he’s riding at the minute. When you see something like that you just have to stand back and admire it, and smile and say well done,” Team Sky manager Dave Brailsford said.

“It’s a bit like watching Messi playing football or something isn’t it?” he said, referring to Barcelona’s Lionel Messi. “He’s winning with such apparent ease at the moment that it’s pretty phenomenal.”

After a time-trial prologue won by Cancellara, and generally flat first few stages, the race is as open as ever. Cancellara has 43 riders within a minute of his overall time — and that’s likely to change when the pack heads to the Alps in the second week and the Pyrenees in the third, if not sooner.

Tuesday’s ride marked the first crash-related withdrawals from this 99th Tour, which ends July 22 on Paris’ Champs-Elysees.

Overall, Cancellara leads runner-up Bradley Wiggins, who is hoping to become Britain’s first Tour winner, and third-place Sylvain Chavanel — both seven seconds back. Defending champ Cadel Evans climbed one spot to seventh place, 17 seconds behind. Sagan was 15th, another six seconds slower.

The Swiss leader and the expected Tour title hopefuls trailed Sagan in a 45-rider pack that crossed one second behind the Slovak star — leaving the top standings little changed.

But Belgium’s Philippe Gilbert, who last year had 18 victories in all competitions and was the top-ranked rider in the standings, went tumbling after getting hit from behind. He clambered back onto his bike with scrapes on his left leg and arm and kept going, but lost more time to change a shoe damaged in the crash, said his BMC team manager, John Lelangue.

Gilbert straggled across the finish line 7:46 after Sagan, plunging to 104th place overall. The Belgian began the day in seventh place, 13 seconds behind Cancellara. Gilbert’s slide meant Evans rose a notch.

It was one of at least four crashes that marred the stage as riders jostled to get up front for climbs near the finish, including one within the last mile. Some riders also had mechanical troubles and flat tires.

“The group was nervous. Everyone wanted to be up front,” Sagan told France-2 TV. “There were a lot of crashes. … It was a very dangerous stage.”

Five breakaway riders got out early through northern France’s wheat fields and former steel industry hubs, and through medieval villages like Isbergues — named for a sister of Charlemagne who, legend has it, could cure skin and eye illnesses.

With about 30 miles to go, several riders crashed in a flat portion of road through a wheat field in a slight turn.

Sky’s Kanstantsin Sivtsov of Belarus became the first competitor to drop out this year. A Tour medical report said he broke his left shin and was facing surgery.

Some 18 miles later, another crash sent riders flying off the shoulder of the road on both sides. One flew into a wire fence. Spain’s Jose Joaquin Rojas of Movistar got into an ambulance and dropped out. He was hospitalized with a broken collarbone, the medical report said.

That second big spill split the pack into mini bunches, and the front group overtook the breakaway riders.

U.S. sprint specialist Tyler Farrar went down in the first crash and was delayed in the second. He and several of his Garmin-Sharp teammates rallied together to rejoin the main pack.

Wednesday’s fourth stage takes riders on another bumpy ride along several hills, a 134-mile leg from Abbeville to Rouen in the heart of Normandy.

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