Peter Sagan wins opening stage of Tour of California

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Peter Sagan has had trouble finding his way to the front at the finish this season.

Turns out he just needed to get back to the Tour of California.

The three-time road cycling world champion, and the winningest rider in race history, freelanced his way to the front of the opening stage Sunday and then held off fast-finishing Travis McCabe of the USA Cycling team to earn his 17th career win in North America’s biggest stage race.

Sagan had only one victory this season, a meager amount of success for arguably the world’s most versatile rider. Some thought he was still feeling the lingering effects of a crash at last year’s Tour de France, though the affable Slovakian sprinter insisted all along that he was close to form.

McCabe nearly caught him at the finish line in downtown Sacramento in what would have been a monumental upset. Max Walscheid rounded out the podium Sunday for Team Sunweb, which set a frantic pace over the final couple of miles to set up the sprint finish.

“I felt great. I was closing in on him,” McCabe said. “I had to come from two or three wheels back of Peter, and I knew this stage has a slightly false-flat, so I waited until I needed to go.

“Losing to a world champion,” McCabe added, “is not a bad thing.”

The only truly flat stage during the seven-day race transpired just about as everyone expected, with early breakaways slowly reeled in by a peloton intent on setting up a sprint finish.

The 89-mile stage rolled off under sunny conditions and out of the state capitol, then returned to Sacramento for a series of criterium-style laps. The last breakaway riders were caught with about 10 miles to go, setting up an intense and spectator-friendly finish in downtown Sacramento.

Sagan began freelancing his way toward the front, using rival teams rather than his own Bora-Hansgrohe team to deliver him to the front. He began to move up behind a series of Team Ineos riders as speeds hit 40 mph, then swung off in sight of the finish line and had enough to hold on.

Sagan punched the air with his right fist, then celebrated with his signature wheelie – a move that has become so common at the Tour of California, even if it had been rare so far this season.

Now the question becomes how long Sagan can defend the leader’s jersey.

The second stage Monday takes riders 122 miles from the start in Rancho Cordova to the popular skiing destination of South Lake Tahoe. The crucial climbing stages come later in the week, but riders will still navigate nearly 15,000 feet of ascent in what could shake up the general classification.

It could also be another chance for McCabe, who insisted he’s not a pure sprinter.

“I was looking more at stage 3 and stage 4, so coming here and getting second place – and it’s Mother’s Day and it’s actually my birthday,” he said. “I got some cake at the team presentation this morning. I think that gave me a little extra in the legs today.”

Australia’s Jay Vine wins Tour Down Under

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ADELAIDE, Australia — Australia’s Jay Vine defended his overnight lead to win the Tour Down Under, the first event of the 2023 World Tour.

Simon Yates of Britain won the final stage and moved up from third to second place on overall standings. Vine came in second on the stage to secure the biggest win of his career in a stage race.

The UAE Team Emirates rider took the overall tour lead when he finished second in Stage 2 and third in Stage 3. He came into the final stage with a 15-second lead on general classification.

The 70-mile stage involved four laps of a 15.5 mile-circuit through the Adelaide Hills before finishing just beyond the summit of Mount Lofty.

Yates led the crucial attack on the ascent less than 1.2 miles from the finish, but Vine jumped onto his wheel and Australian Ben O’Connor also joined in.

O’Connor led out close to the finish line, Vine briefly passed him but Yates came over the top to claim the stage win. Vine retained his overall advantage and claimed the title in his debut appearance in the Tour Down Under.

The 27-year-old made his name in e-Sports before being signed by the UAE team after winning the academy program on the Zwift online platform. He won two stages of the Vuelta a Espana last year and the Australian Time Trial title.

“It’s pretty incredible to be standing here and wearing this jersey,” Vine said. “The way we drove that was first class. My guys were incredible.”

The final stage featured a breakaway of 13 riders but Vine’s UAE teammates led the chase by the peloton and put their rider in a position to contest the win.

Yates again rode an aggressive race but had to be happy with the stage win.

“We came Down Under with a lot of ambition. We put a lot into it and we didn’t come away with the overall but we can walk away pretty happy,” Yates said. “Obviously Jay Vine is a massive talent and the crowd will be happy with a local winner.”

France’s Coquard wins Tour Down Under Stage 4; Vine leads

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ADELAIDE, Australia — French cyclist Bryan Coquard won Stage 4 of the Tour Down Under for his first-ever World Tour win, while Australia’s Jay Vine retained the overall tour lead by 15 seconds with one stage remaining.

Coquard is a lightweight sprinter who has had 49 wins in a decade-long career but had never won on the World Tour until he cleared out near the finish to claim the 82-mile stage by a margin of about just over 100 feet.

Vine was among the leading group that shared Coquard’s winning time and who retained his lead on general classification over Britain’s Simon Yates and Germany’s Phil Bauhaus. The race concludes with Stage 5, which ends atop 2,329-foot Mount Lofty.

“It’s a long time that I’ve waited for this win, 10 years,” said Coquard, who rides for the French Cofidis team. “I never really expected and I’m very happy and relieved with this win.”

While the stage was flat and suited sprinters, it had its challenges. Cross-winds and occasional gradients made the stage difficult and confounded some riders.

After an early breakaway by Jonas Rutsch and former tour winner Daryl Impey of South Africa, the peloton broke into two groups with Vine and other tour leaders among the leading group.

The leading group stayed together around the last, sharp bend towards the finish and Coquard bided his time until his late sprint left other riders flat-footed.

“It was pretty stressful,” Vine said. “There was one point there, I thought we were going to have an easy day and I was happy, smiling, waving to families on the side of the road.

“Then, 45 kilometers in it was on and it was on until the end so it was a very hard day. There was a lot more calorie expenditure than I was planning.”