SERAING, Belgium (AP) — Peter Sagan blushed, giggled and eventually brushed off comparisons to Lance Armstrong on Sunday after becoming the youngest rider to win a Tour de France stage since the Texan nearly a generation ago.
The 22-year-old Slovak gave a command performance in his debut in a full Tour stage by outsprinting Swiss rider Fabian Cancellara, who mounted a spirited and successful defense of his yellow jersey over a hilly ride in eastern Belgium in Stage 1.
The standings among the top contenders to win the three-week race didn’t change much after the 123-mile loop from Liege to suburban Seraing featuring five low-grade climbs. Bradley Wiggins of Britain and defending champion Cadel Evans trailed close behind in a splintered pack.
Overall, Wiggins is second behind Cancellara, seven seconds back, and Evans is another 10 seconds slower in eighth.
Sagan, who won five of eight stages in this year’s Tour of California among the 13 stage victories he has this year, placed his hands on his shoulders after edging out Cancellara and Norway’s Edvald Boasson Hagen. It was the culmination of a tricky uphill patch with cobblestones right before the finish.
The promising Slovak becomes the youngest rider to capture a Tour stage since Armstrong won his first of his 22 career Tour stage victories at age 21 — in Stage 8 in 1993. The youngest of all time is Italy’s Fabio Battesini, who was 19 when he won one in the 1931 Tour.
Sagan landed another spot in the history books: No other Tour debutant has won the first Tour road stage since Fabio Baldato of Italy 17 years ago, according to Infostrada, a Dutch sports information service. David Zabriskie of the United States won the opening time-trial in his first Tour in 2005, but that wasn’t a full road stage.
Asked whether he has the potential to be the next Armstrong, Sagan cautioned that such talk was a bit premature: “I would like to be, but I’m so young it’s impossible to know what the future will be.”
“If that could be true, it would be great,” the Liquigas-Cannondale rider said with a nervous laugh.
He rose to 23th place overall, 24 seconds behind Cancellara, after entering the day in 56th place — 3:49 behind — after the prologue that Sagan said wasn’t suited to his talents.
To have a chance to achieve Armstrong’s stature, Sagan will have to prove that he’s a complete rider who can excel in time-trials and the mountains — not just a “puncher” who can burst ahead late on flatter stages.
He’ll get that chance in two time-trials ahead and as the race veers to the Alps in Week 2 and down into the Pyrenees mountains before the July 22 finish on Paris’ Champs-Elysees.
Cancellara, the 31-year-old veteran who won Saturday’s prologue, offered racing panache with an aggressive final attack — an unusual move because the bearer of the yellow jersey generally spends more effort trying to defend it than going on the offensive himself.
“We got absolutely no help from other teams, so I said the best defense is to attack,” he said, referring to his RadioShack squad. “I saw the last turn with a little stretch of cobbles and I said, ‘Here, full gas.’”
“I’m not the kind of rider that gives up with 500 meters left,” said the Swiss veteran. “That’s not me. If I try something I go all the way — and if I finish second, that’s just how it goes.”
Sagan hugged the wheel of Cancellara, who was doing the hard work of leading into the wind, then whipped around him with less than 150 yards left to win in 4 hours, 58 minutes, 19 seconds.
At least two crashes marred Sunday’s stage amid escalating tensions within the pack near the finish, where roadside crowds drew in to get a glimpse of the whirring bicycles.
High-profile riders including Spain’s Luis Leon Sanchez and Michael Rogers of Australia went down in one late spill, but got back up. Bad luck continued to plague Germany’s Tony Martin, who went down in a crash early Sunday before recovering. The world time-trial champion popped a flat and lost time in the prologue the day before.
At one point, with his team leader Evans riding in his wake, Marcus Burghardt of Germany caused his bike to jump to avoid a plastic bottle in a downhill patch about 10 miles before the finish.
“The first stages of the Tour: Everyone’s so keen to get going, and everyone’s so nervous,” Evans said.
Monday’s second stage takes the pack on a mostly flat 129-mile jaunt slicing west across Belgium from Vise to Tournai, which could favor a sprint finish.