MORRO BAY, Calif. — Peter Sagan was so far back of the leaders after making the final turn to the finish, and turned up the speed so quickly to overcome them, that he couldn’t even remember which riders he passed.
All he had to do was look at the final standings.
The world champion freelanced through the peloton near the end of the third stage of the Tour of California, then showed his form by out-sprinting Rick Zabel and Simone Consonni — and everyone else, it seemed — on the uphill to the finish line to claim victory on Tuesday.
“On the last turn I was really far behind, and I just started to recover a little bit of position at the front,” Sagan said, “and I tried to make the last turn and start my sprint and keep going.”
It was another banner day for Sagan’s Bora-Hansgrohe team, too.
Stage 2 winner Rafal Majka finished safely in the peloton to keep his overall lead as the race begins to tilt uphill. Majka has two seconds on George Bennett and 14 seconds on Ian Boswell, while his top rivals Brent Bookwalter and Andrew Talansky are 48 seconds adrift.
The fourth stage Wednesday takes riders 99 miles from Santa Barbara inland to Santa Clarita, a lumpy stage where Bora-Hansgrohe will again try to set Sagan up for the victory.
“We have the (yellow) jersey. We won two stages. The team is working very well,” Majka said. “We will try to save the jersey and there are still four stages to win.”
Ben Wolfe, who was part of a long breakaway on the opening stage, reprised his role as rabbit on the third stage from Pismo Beach to Morro Bay. He was part of the leading group until spending several miles alone in front, ultimately getting swept up with about five miles to go.
Asked how he ended up in front twice in three days, Wolfe replied: “Pure luck.”
The field came together on a tricky-run into the finish, swinging off the highway and onto the peninsula of Morro Bay. At that point, it became clear the sprinters would decide the stage.
Katusha-Alpecin was the first team to line up for Alexander Kristoff, and Trek-Segafredo tucked in to get their fast-finisher John Degenkolb to the line. But two sweeping turns toward the beach made it difficult for the lead-out trains to stay together, and gave Sagan the opening he needed.
He sliced through the field, then found his way up the left side of the road, using his immense power to shoot past Kristoff, Degenkolb and the rest of his rivals to the finish.
It was his 16th career stage win in North America’s premier race, extending his own record.
“Peter, as we know, is a machine,” Majka said.
The effervescent Sagan, one of the most popular riders in the pro peloton, threw his arms in the air as he crossed the finish line. And large crowds packed deep along the barriers roared as Slovakia’s biggest cycling star slowed down and slumped over his handlebars.
“Every day I’m looking to try something,” Sagan said. “I’m very happy because today it was a good day for our team. We won yesterday, we won today. We still have the yellow jersey.”
It won’t be easy for Bora-Hansgrohe to protect the yellow jersey, though.
After a fourth stage that should again be decided in a sprint, the fifth stage Thursday takes riders to the summit of Mount Baldy — a hard climb that could shake up the overall standings. Then, the time trial at Big Bear Lake on Friday that should also prove decisive.
“After tomorrow, I feel we have a strong team and they will help me and we’ll go into the last climb and see who is the most strong,” Majka said. “And the time trial is (15 miles) and it’s going to take some time.”