Pumping his arms in victory, Peter Sagan of Slovakia won a crash-marred third stage of the Tour de France yesterday as the race returned to France from Belgium.
Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland remained the overall leader for a fourth straight day after the 197-kilometre trek from Orchies to Boulogne-sur-Mer, a ride which included five small climbs and an uphill finish in the fishing port.
Sagan won his second stage in his debut Tour by bolting out of the splintered pack with less than 300 metres left.
He pumped his arms as he crossed the finish, several lengths - and one second - ahead of Edvald Boasson Hagen of Norway, in second, and his fellow Slovak Peter Velits, in third.
Cancellara retained the yellow jersey, with Bradley Wiggins of Britain second and Sylvain Chavanel of France third, both seven seconds back. The defending champion Cadel Evans climbed to seventh place, 17 seconds behind.
With the pack jostling to get up front for the five small climbs near the finish, there were four crashes, including one within the last kilometre.
Several riders also had mechanical troubles or flat tires as the stage proved demanding on the bikes.
"It was really hard … the group was nervous, everyone wanted to be up front, there were a lot of crashes," Sagan told France-2 television. "It was a very dangerous stage."
Sagan said his victory celebration, in which he pumped his arms as a runner might, was a nod to the title character in the 1994 film Forrest Gump.
Sagan's impressive start to the race, coming two days after he won the first stage, has cemented his status as favourite to win the green jersey of the overall points leader, and he confirmed that is his goal.
"Two stages is good for me and I want green jersey in Paris now," he said. "That's my objective."
Mark Cavendish, who won the green jersey last year, demonstrated he still intends to push Sagan hard by earlier in the event winning the intermediate sprint and picking up 10 points to keep the pressure on.
Sagan's stage victory, though, sees him sitting on 116 points, 42 ahead of Cancellara, who is a further point ahead of Cavendish.
On the trek towards the English Channel, 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 50km to go, several riders crashed in a flat portion of road through a wheat field in a slight turn.
Team Sky's Kanstantsin Sivtsov, of Belarus did not immediately get up and became the first competitor to drop out of this year's 99th edition of cycling's showcase race.
Approximately 20km later, another crash sent riders flying off the road on both sides - and one flew into a wire fence. Jose Joaquin Rojas of Spain and the Movistar team climbed into an ambulance and dropped out, too, according to race organisers.
The spill split the pack into mini-bunches, and the front group overtook the breakaway riders.
The US sprint specialist Tyler Farrar of Garmin-Sharp went down in the first crash and was delayed in the second, and he and several teammates rallied together to join back up with the main pack.
Cancellara said of the havoc: "It was tight at the end, with so many small, narrow roads. Sagan was just too quick. I'm happy to get through the stage without crashes and we have the yellow jersey.
"Tomorrow is a sprint day so I hope I can defend the jersey."
Today's fourth stage takes riders on another bumpy ride along several hills, a 214.5km jaunt from Abbeville to Rouen in the heart of Normandy.
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