On its 20th birthday, the Tour Down Under has a stage win by a world champion. The new finish into Uraidla Friday afternoon promised to shake up the race and duly delivered. The stage finish is sure to go down as an all-time highlight due to the exploits of Peter Sagan.
The new finish, via the category 1 Norton Summit climb, was a stage that had no outright favourite. Predictions were mixed, with riders and sports directors alike suggesting the result could go the way of a climber or a puncheur, but with no one discounting Sagan.
On the climb up Norton Summit, BMC Racing drilled the pace to thin the field but couldn't shake Sagan. The ascent was just seconds slower than when they raced up Norton Summit two years ago. Over the top of the climb, Richie Porte (BMC Racing) and George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo) led the attacks and briefly got clear before Sagan made his counter-attack with 3.5 kilometres to race.
Despite being reeled in by the 34-rider group in his wake, Sagan then finished off his early work with a canny sprint finale to take the win ahead of a charging Daryl Impey. With victory came the race leader's ochre jersey.
"It was a really tough day. It was really hot and when we came to the bottom of the last climb, it was not about pain or legs," Sagan said after his finishing his podium duties as stage winner, race leader and holder of the points jersey.
"It was a really strange feeling. I didn't expect I could climb like that in this period."
Sagan was three times second on his Tour Down Under return last year following his 2010 debut, the runner-up placings all coming in sprint stages.
Although already a winner during his third visit to Australia, Sagan's stage win was levels above his People's Choice Classic criterium win last Sunday night. It also delivers race organiser, Mike Turtur, the image of the world champion crossing the line with his arms in the air.
Oscar Camenzind, Cadel Evans, Philippe Gilbert and Sagan, last year, have all previously worn the rainbow bands in the race but only on Tour Down Under stage number 119 did the world champion finally prevail.
"It is very nice. I already won the criterium and now we continue like this. It is very nice. Every day it is a different winner and I think it's good for the organisation and also for the race," Sagan said in his stage winning television interview.
After two days of 40-degree plus racing, the denouement of the general classification battle will arrive Saturday afternoon atop Willunga Hill in slightly cooler 26-degree temperatures. Sagan starts the stage with two seconds on Impey and 14 seconds on Porte. He was 6:41 down on Porte's stage winning time last year and ruled out his own bid for the overall, reiterating Bora's plan is to ride for Jay McCarthy.
"We all know why we are here and for Jay, it is a big race. He is racing at home and tomorrow is a much harder stage than today," said Sagan. "Tomorrow is going to be a different story."