Posted: Sunday May 13, 2012 7:34 PM

Sagan wins first stage of Tour of California

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SANTA ROSA, Calif. (AP) - Peter Sagan overcame a punctured back tire in the final five miles to chase down the field and capture the first stage of the Tour of California on Sunday.

The Liquigas-Cannondale team rider lost about 20 seconds during a mechanical change in the last sprint. Sagan survived a crash ahead of him and masterfully guided through a technical decent in serene Sonoma wine country to finish just ahead of Heinrich Haussler and Fred Rodriguez.

"It was a confusing finish. There were very few people in the peloton,'' said Sagan, who won his fourth stage victory in the Tour of California.

The 115.9-mile opening stage of North America's most prominent cycling race began the eight-day, 733.5-mile journey that ends in downtown Los Angeles.

After weathering pelting rains in the past and canceling the opening stage in the Sierra last year because of late-season snow, the only downer in wine country came in the form of morning fog.

The stage started with two leveled laps around downtown Santa Rosa in front of a cow-bell clanging, horn-blowing crowd that turned out by the thousands in this cycling-loving city.

Eight sprinters built a 10-minute lead by the time the peloton returned for the first of two trips - and the far flatter route - to the city's main drag. Patches of sunshine broke through in the afternoon for a mountainous loop out to the Pacific Ocean and back that brought the day's total climbing to more than 6,000 feet.

The breakaway maintained the firm lead through the rolling hills, verdant vineyards and blooming wildflowers synonymous with Sonoma County. The scene shifted through a redwood forest and another curving climb, when the peloton pulled the lead trio - Maxime Bouet, Jeffry Louder and Ben Jacques-Maynes - by the end of a difficult descent down Highway 1 along the coastal cliffs.

Blue skies finally provided a fitting frame for a frantic finish from the field through Santa Rosa's streets.

Sagan never panicked when his rear tire punctured with about 5 miles left and a pack of sprinters already in pursuit. In the end, the misfortune might've actually helped.

A crash swept up about a dozen riders - including one of the world's top sprinters, Michael Matthews - with about 3 miles remaining. Sagan shifted down and pedaled furiously, overtaking Haussler and Rodriguez in the final mile.

The 22-year-old nicknamed "Terminator'' pointed to the adoring crowd at the finish line and hoisted both hands in the air in triumph. Such a frantic, final sprint is unlikely.

Cycling's collection of talent in California will be tested with treacherous climbs in all but the final stage.

The field of 128 riders - including three of the world's four top-ranked cyclists - heads to the shores of San Francisco and into the Santa Cruz mountains Monday. Stage three goes from San Jose up to Mount Diablo in San Francisco's East Bay and ends in the Livermore valley.

Then the race shifts south to complete the eight-day, 733.5-mile journey in downtown Los Angeles.

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Follow Antonio Gonzalez at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP

 
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