Super Sagan closing in on historic Tour glory
PETER Sagan is closing in on a record-equalling sixth green jersey after snatching a third stage win as the Tour de France returned to flatter ground.
Once Phillipe Gilbert's long-range attack in Valence was brought to heel by an FDJ team working for Arnaud Demare, Sagan came off the wheel of Alexander Kristoff to take the victory with a wheel lunge on the line.
"This stage was a piece of gold for us," Sagan said.
"It's fantastic. I mean, also with the flat stage and with a flat stage everyone recovered a little bit in the group. I think everyone was happy that it was a relaxed stage.
"I'm very happy to have won today. It was very nice for me, and thanks to all my teammates, who did a very good job.
"I thought I was a little bit late (to start my sprint). I was a little bit behind at 600m, but in the last climb I tried to bring myself to the front. I stayed on Kristoff's wheel and I'm very happy to beat them."
The triple world champion has a virtual unassailable lead in the points classification, leading nearest challenger Kristoff by 228 points.
After three brutal days in the Alps that blew this race to smithereens, Friday's benign 169.5km journey from Bourg d'Oisans to Valence, with only one category three and one category four climb, offered welcome respite to a battered peloton.
Sagan's path to yet another green jersey has been cleared by the abandonment of several of his sprint rivals, who missed the time cut on those hellish mountain days in almost unprecedented numbers.
Andre Greipel, Fernando Gaviria, Dylan Groenewegen all failed to finish Thursday's stage to Alpe d'Huez, and Mark Cavendish pulled up stumps on Wednesday's slog to La Rosiere.
Kristoff's UAE Emirates teammate, Australian Rory Sutherland, said Kristoff had done well just to remain in contention.
"Sagan is obviously incredibly fast. Alex did a fantastic job today after surviving the last three days and really suffering in the mountains and that's why he's still in the race," Sutherland said.
"He's a hard nut to crack, but we've got to two more sprints to go and we'll keep trying."
While the easier terrain made it easy on the legs, Sutherland said another fast and technical finish added a different sort of stress.
"It was pretty chaotic today. The day after a hard mountain stage, but with the wind, the general classification guys are really scared of losing time and everyone is tired which makes it a bit more dangerous," he said.
"There was roundabouts, wind, losing people left, right and centre - for some reason the organisation seems to be finding sprint finishes with downhills, uphills and roundabouts every 200m."
Sagan had his hopes of a sixth consecutive green jersey dashed last year when the Tour de France race jury controversially disqualified him after a sprint run-in with Cavendish.
But he looks almost certain to take it in 2018 - 12 months after Aussie Michael Matthews finished with it on the Champs Elysees.
Friday's finish in Valence produced no changes to the general classification.
Geraint Thomas remains in yellow by 1min 39 sec from Team Sky teammate Chris Froome, and Tom Dumoulin is third at 1min 50 sec back.