MONTEREY (AP) — It was fitting that Peter Sagan would win a stage of the Tour of California on a racetrack.
The world champion and one of the fastest finishers in pro cycling successfully navigated two brutal climbs near the end of Wednesday’s stage, then outsprinted Greg Van Avermaet and Nathan Haas at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca for his second victory in the first four stages.
Julian Alaphilippe finished with the leaders on the 134-mile ride to retain his overall lead.
“It was very hard, the last two climbs, to be with the climbers and everyone was attacking,” said Sagan, who also captured the opening stage Sunday in San Diego. “(Van Avermaet) was always on my wheel and then after the last turn, I let one guy go in front of me and he pulled my sprint.”
That guy was Haas, who had attacked the moment the lead group finished a long downhill approaching 60 mph and made a left turn into the grounds of Laguna Seca. BMC Racing quickly pulled him back, and then Sagan — knowing he had the legs to win a sprint finish — began keeping an eye on breakaway attempts.
Twice he single-handedly nailed back attacks on the final climb, where the grade reached 14 percent, and that kept things together enough for him to win his record-extending 15th stage in California.
“I have to thank my teammates,” he said. “They were pulling all day.”
Alaphilippe, who won the previous day’s climb up Gibraltar Road, earned an early 3-second time bonus to push the Frenchman’s lead to 22 seconds over American rider Peter Stetina. George Bennett of New Zealand is 37 seconds adrift as the race heads to the start of Stage 5 in Lodi.
The stage Thursday takes riders 132 miles, most of it spent climbing through forests and vineyards, to South Lake Tahoe. A short, steep climb near the finish could help to shape the overall race lead.
Meanwhile, the four-stage women’s Tour of California begins Thursday with 72-mile loop of Lake Tahoe that finishes at the same ski resort as the men’s stage. Among the favorites will be Olympic gold medalist Marianne Vos, reigning U.S. champion Megan Guarnier and her teammate, Evelyn Stevens.
“It’s a top-class field, if you look around. It’s all the top-class riders from all around the world,” said Vos, who is back from injuries sustained in a crash earlier this year. “Everyone is in good form.”