Rumours of the career demise of one of the most powerful riders in the pro peloton proved to be unfounded last week as Peter Sagan finally managed to break an interminable sequence of near-misses and fashion a couple of incredible just-wins instead. With margins that would be more at home in sprint racing on the track rather than multiple-stage road races, the increasingly tousled-haired Slovakian won the Tenth edition of the Tour of California with a heart-stopping show of verve, willpower and sheer bloody-mindedness that should quieten his critics for some time. It might even quieten his current fiercest critic – his employer Oleg Tinkoff – for a couple of days.
Lying in second place at the beginning of Stage 4, 1:06 back from young race leader Toms Skujijns of Hincapie Racing, Sagan surged to a win with a couple of moves that showcased his outstanding bike handling talents. On-board footboard from a Drapac rider shows him cutting through an impossibly small gap to get ahead of MTN-Quebeka’s Tyler Farrar and forge ahead to take the uphill sprint.
Such is his run of near-misses – at that point he already had eight second places this season – any Sagan win is now considered surprising but the one he fashioned two days later (following a third place on Stage 5) was even more remarkable. Sagan is expected to win punchy sprints after an up-and-down parcours but he is not expected to win Individual Time Trials. Win it he did though – by 15 seconds over the second placed rider – and he took the leaders jersey by 28 seconds over Skujijns, who began to see his own chances of a high overall finish slip away. The win on Stage 4 seemed to have re-ignited Sagan’s self belief..
He fashioned another excellent, unexpected showing on the showpiece summit finish to Mount Baldy, on which he placed 6th, within touching distance of much stronger climbers such as Henao of SKY and Alaphilippe of EQS. On the climb Sagan turned himself inside out to maintain a hope of the overall and won many plaudits for his gutsy effort. He did relinquish the overall lead to Allaphilippe – but only by two seconds, which set up the final day beautifully.
Alaphilippe’s teammate Mark Cavendish had been imperious all week in the pure sprint stages, of which this was to be another, and he was destined to take the win as expected. In his wake however the GC battle was being fought out to within the width of an inner tube. Wearing an aero-helmet that had been absent all week, Sagan first nudged out his GC rival by one position in the intermediate sprint to cut his deficit to a single second and then performed the most timely of bike throws to beat Farrar again by just that tyre width for third place on the day and 4 crucial bonus seconds. Real-time video suggested that Farrar had him beat, and Alaphilippe and his Etixx teammates did start their celebrations before the photo-finish confirmed the true result, itself prompting an extended wheelie from Sagan up and down the finish straight.
The run of wins couldn’t have come at a better time for Sagan, who was simultaneously having to suffer the indignation of seeing Oleg Tinkoff give interviews at the Giro d’Italia saying that he is looking at ‘every legal means’ to reduce Sagan’s salary as he (Tinkoff) feels that his rider isn’t performing well enough. With other stories doing the rounds that Sagan’s head has been turned and his focus dulled by the bright lights of his mega salary and his move to the French Riviera, this was a case of answering in the finest style.
Sagan is box-office, no doubt. But he is also a truly remarkable cyclist. If he really has begun to believe in himself again, the rest of the peloton had better watch out.
B&W photo by Andy Bokanev via @tinkoff_saxo