The 22-year-old Slovakian won Tuesday’s ride toward the English Channel in dramatic fashion, and then went cinematic – pumping his arms in the running style of fictional antihero Forrest Gump at the behest of his Liquigas teammates.
Competing in his first Tour, Sagan earned his second victory in the three full stages so far. He is picking up where he left off in May at the Tour of California, where he won a stunning five of eight stages.
On Tuesday, he mastered a tricky uphill finish and schooled many older riders on the last of five small climbs over the 122-mile ride from Orchies to the fishing port of Boulogne-sur-Mer.
With the pack split up because of crashes, Sagan bolted ahead with less than 300 meters left. He crossed the line several lengths – and one second – ahead of 46 other riders in his wake.
Switzerland’s Fabian Cancellara was one of them, and he retained the leader’s yellow jersey for a fourth consecutive day after winning the opening-day prologue on Saturday.
Tuesday’s ride marked the first crash-related withdrawals from this 99th Tour, which ends July 22 on Paris’ Champs-Elysees.
The race remains wide open. After flat early stages, the Swiss rider has 43 rivals within a minute of his overall time, and that’s likely to change when the pack heads to the Alps in next week.
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 Evansrose one spot to seventh, 17 seconds behind. Sagan was 15th, another six seconds slower.
With Sagan’s Stage 1 victory Sunday, he became the youngest rider to win a Tour stage since Lance Armstrong in 1993 at 21.
Even leaders of rival teams were marveling at his skill and potential after Tuesday’s victory.
“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.”
Sagan enjoys putting on a show for fans. To that end, 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,” Sagan said. “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.
The top standings didn’t change much on Tuesday.
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 television. “There were a lot of crashes. … It was a very dangerous stage.”
Five riders broke out early through northern France’s wheat fields and former steel industry hubs, speeding through medieval villages like Isbergues – named for a sister of Charlemagne who, legend has it, could cure skin and eye illnesses. But the pack of contenders overcame them near the end.
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.
Rabobank’s Maarten Tjallingii broke his left hip in the same accident but finished the stage. Team spokesman Richard Plugge said the Dutch rider was taken to a hospital in the Netherlands for surgery.
And 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 was hospitalized with a broken collarbone, the medical report said.
American veteran Tom Danielson, who at eighth was the top American finisher at last year’s Tour, crashed hard but finished the stage. A hospital exam showed he had separated his right shoulder – the same one that the East Lyme, Conn., cyclist hurt in a crash in the 2007 Spanish Vuelta, Garmin-Sharp team spokeswoman Marya Pongrace said in an e-mail. It wasn’t immediately clear if Danielson would start Wednesday.
Fellow American and Garmin sprint specialist Tyler Farrar went down in the first crash and was delayed in the second, but he was not badly injured, Pongrace said.
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.