ealmond@mercurynews.com

MOUNT DIABLO STATE PARK -- Rohan Dennis of Australia was hell on wheels.

He set off on a blistering sprint in the final 200 meters Tuesday during a lung-bursting climb up Mount Diablo to win Stage 3 of the Amgen Tour of California.

The final burst from the Australian riding for Team Garmin-Sharp shaved 20 seconds off Bradley Wiggins' overall lead after three tough stages in the tour that ends Sunday in Thousand Oaks.

Wiggins, 34, finished ninth on a day it appears he secured his first Tour of California title.

With five days left, it seems like a foregone conclusion for the Team Sky leader. The man who won the 2012 Tour de France and Olympic time trial gold medal at the London Games looks too fit to catch.

The breakaway group including Ruben Zepuntke, Bissell Development Team, far right, Jonathan Clarke, UnitedHealthcare, Paul Voss, Team Netapp-Endura, and
The breakaway group including Ruben Zepuntke, Bissell Development Team, far right, Jonathan Clarke, UnitedHealthcare, Paul Voss, Team Netapp-Endura, and Robbie Squire, Jamis-Hagens Berman P/S Sutter Home, far right, make the turn off of Camino Tassajara and up Blackhawk Road toward Mount Diablo during Stage 3 of the Amgen Tour of California cycling race in Danville, Calif., on Tuesday, May 13, 2014. (Dan Honda/Bay Area News Group)

"I don't know if the Tour de France and Olympic champion is going to crack," Dennis said. "He is a level above all of us."

Kiel Reijnen of UnitedHeathcare Pro Cycling put it this way: "He's on another planet."

The rest of the 125-rider field knows the score. Wiggins proved himself over a one-two punch Monday and Tuesday in a stage race that could lose its drama.

But Dennis and the rest also were not ready to concede.

"It's biking racing, it's never over," Reijnen said. "A mechanical in the wrong spot, a flat or a crash. It's easy to say on paper, but for most of us if we didn't believe we had a shot of winning we wouldn't be here."

Race director Jim Birrell was hoping for leader changes through the race. He holds out hope something could happen Friday with a mountain finish in Southern California.

But the twin climbs up Mount Hamilton and 3,848-foot Mount Diablo were not challenging enough to force Wiggins out of the yellow jersey.

"There are still a lot of miles between here and Thousand Oaks," Birrell said, hopefully.

But it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which Wiggins would surrender the lead because Team Sky is one of the world's strongest teams. The British outfit has scored consecutive victories at the Tour de France, looking to add another this year.

At least for a few seconds, Dennis showed he was the man of the day by sprinting past Wiggins and all other comers to win 108.5-mile the "Queens Stage" in 4 hours, 56 minutes, 2 seconds.

He beat Tiago Machado of Team NetApp-Endura by six seconds. Texan Lawson Craddock of Team Giant-Shimano was third, eight seconds behind.

Wiggins leads Dennis by 24 seconds in the overall standings. Machado is third overall, 1:05 behind.

"It's not very often that I win a hilltop finish," Dennis said. "Usually I crack."

As they rode over the mountains and into the heat Tuesday, the man with the yellow jersey looked calm. Wiggins kept a firm grip on the lead after a sizzling time trial on Stage 2.

"This is the first time I have ridden in this type of heat in almost two years," Wiggins said. "It takes an adjustment. Actually I am a bit knackered from it."

But the rising temperatures that reached well into the 90s didn't reduce the British star to a puddle. He worked to minimize any losses.

The day started with a big breakaway on 4,216-foot Mount Hamilton. The lead reached almost 7 minutes but none of the favored teams were involved in the break.

Team Sky tested Diablo a week ago. As a result, Wiggins knew the final 300 meters would be tough. But he expects the rest of the week to be equally difficult, starting Wednesday in Monterey for a stage through Big Sur.

"Every day is a tough day when you're in yellow," Wiggins said.

Contact Elliott Almond at 408-920-5865. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/elliottalmond.