Slovak sprint sensation Peter Sagan has proved again that at only 22 he is one of the most exciting and dominating pro cyclists of his generation.
Just two days after becoming the youngest Tour de France stage winner since Lance Armstrong, Sagan's victory at Boulogne-sur-Mer made him only the third cyclist in the last quarter century to win multiple stages in his very first Tour de France.
The Team Liquigas-Cannondale rider's performance this morning (NZ time) left even his rivals in awe.
In the race's final instants Sagan whipped around a charging pack that included yellow jersey-holder Fabian Cancellara and defending Tour champion Cadel Evans on a steep uphill climb, sprinting across the line a second ahead of his pursuers.
Team Sky manager Dave Brailsford compares Sagan's feat to Argentinian football superstar Lionel Messi.
"It's a bit like watching Messi play football or something isn't it?" Brailsford said after the stage finish. "He's winning with such apparent ease at the moment that it's pretty phenomenal."
Today's uphill stage finish favored riders like Brailsford's young Norwegian champion Edvald Boasson Hagen, whose talent is in short and steep sprints at the end of long stages, like the two stages he won in last year's Tour at Lisieux, France and Pinerolo, Italy.
Boasson Hagen, 25, finished in second place today, a second behind Sagan, while another Slovak, Peter Velits, crossed the line third.
"You just tip your hat, smile and think wow, he's enjoyable to watch isn't he, although it'd be nice to watch Edvald come across first," Brailsford said.
Former world champion Tom Boonen is the last rider to notch multiple stage victories during his inaugural Tour, winning two in 2004. The only other rider in the last 25 years to achieve that feat was Dutchman Jean-Paul van Poppel in 1987, according to sports data provider Infostrada Sports.
Sky, a British team assembled around leader Bradley Wiggins with the goal of becoming the first British team to win the Tour de France in 99 editions, suffered a big loss today when Kanstantsin Sivtsov broke his left shin in a crash and became the first rider to leave this year's race.
"Kosta" as the Belarusian' teammates call him, was followed later by Spain's Jose Joaquin Rojas of Movistar, felled in a later crash. A third rider, Rabobank's Maarten Tjallingii, withdrew after finishing the stage with a broken hip, leaving 195 racers still in competition.
Brailford said the loss was "a setback, but not a devastating setback" for Sky's goal.
"It's not ideal but it's not the end of the world either," Brailsford said. "It's like boxing isn't it, you take a punch and as long as you've got gloves on and you're fighting you can still knock the other fellow out can't you?"
Sagan pumped his arms as he crossed the line, with a gesture in which he churned his arms as a runner, which he said was a nod the title character in the film "Forrest Gump."
Overall, Cancellara leads Wiggins in second and Sylvain Chavanel of France in third, both seven seconds back. Defending champ Cadel Evans climbed from eighth to seventh place, 17 seconds behind.
With the pack jostling to get up front for the climbs near the finish there were at least four crashes, including one within the last mile. Several riders also had mechanical trouble or flat tires.
"The group was nervous. Everyone wanted to be up front; there were a lot of crashes," Sagan told France-2 television. "It was a very dangerous stage."
US sprint specialist Tyler Farrar of Garmin-Sharp went down in one crash and was delayed by a second. He and several teammates rallied together to rejoin the main pack.
Tomorrow's fourth stage takes riders on another bumpy ride along several hills, a 134-mile (216-kilometre) leg from Abbeville to Rouen in the heart of Normandy.