SISTERON, France — A basketball player weaving through the defense. A skier dancing between the gates. A soccer player dribbling zig-zag toward the goal.
Australian rider Caleb Ewan borrowed the playbook from other sports as he slalomed through the bunch to win a sprint finish and claim the third stage of the Tour de France on Monday, while Julian Alaphilippe held onto the yellow jersey that he claimed with a dramatic stage victory a day earlier.
With about 100 meters to go, Ewan trailed five other riders before slinging himself through a narrow slice of road near the advertising barriers on the right side of the street. Then - after more than five hours in the saddle - Ewan darted to the left to overcome Sam Bennett and claim his fourth career stage win in the Tour by more than a wheel.
“I found my way through the wheels,” Ewan said. “Coming from behind, it’s a bit of a risk, but I found my way along the barrier and I came with a lot of speed and it worked.”
Living up to his nickname of “Pocket Rocket,” the 5-foot-5 Ewan reached a top speed of42.7 mph in the finale.
It was a perfectly timed acceleration.
“In the last (kilometer) I was a bit too far forward so I dropped back a bit into the wheels,” Ewan said. “That gave me time to rest the legs just a little before the last hit out,”
Irish champion Bennett, a teammate of Alaphilippe’s at Deceuninck–Quick-Step, crossed second and European champion Giacomo Nizzolo came third - both with the same time as Ewan.
Alaphilippe crossed with the main pack and retained a four-second lead over Adam Yates, with Marc Hirschi still third overall, seven seconds behind.
“We had a really good day. The team really controlled everything. We tried to go for the sprint and Sam got second today. You can’t see, but I’m smiling,” Alaphilippe said behind a mask. “We defended (the yellow jersey) today and we’ll do it again tomorrow.”
Ewan, who rides for the Lotto-Soudal team, won three stages last year, including the coveted final leg on the Champs-Élysées in Paris. He said this win proved “that last year wasn’t just a fluke.”
Ewan had a difficult start to this race with a crash in Stage 1 and a last-place finish in Stage 2. His team was hurting, too, with Philippe Gilbert and John Degenkolb forced to withdraw after also crashing in the rain-slicked opening leg.
“We need to take every sprint opportunity that we can because they’re quite rare this year,” Ewan said.
After the opening two stages in the Mediterranean city of Nice, the race veered inland over a 123-mile route to Sisteron, which is labeled the “Gateway to Provence.”
The route featured four minor climbs before a flat finish suited to sprinters.
Three French riders - Anthony Perez, Jérôme Cousin and Benoît Cosnefroy - broke away at the start and established an advantage of nearly three minutes.
Cousin then launched a solo attack midway through the stage and created a lead of more than four minutes.
Cousin was finally caught by the main pack with 16 kilometers remaining.
Perez, meanwhile, crashed into his team car on a high-speed descent after puncturing a tire and broke his left collarbone -- forcing him to abandon the race.
It was an especially unfortunate accident for Perez, since he had already gained enough points to don the polka-dot mountains classification jersey after the stage.
Durango’s Sepp Kuss, riding for Team Jumbo-Visma, finished safely in the peloton with the same time as the stage winner. He was 83rd on the stage and in 40th in the overall standings.
Stage 4 on Tuesday features the race’s first uphill finish with a climb to Orcières-Merlette that should force the overall favorites - such as defending champion Egan Bernal and Jumbo-Visma riders Primoz Roglic and Tom Dumoulin - into action.
The three-week Tour, which was postponed from its usual July slot due to the coronavirus, ends in Paris on Sept. 20.
The Durango Herald contributed to this report.