Stage 12: Bourg-en-Bresse to Saint-Étienne, 185.5km. Rolling.
Alexander Kristoff, winner of what was supposed to be Peter Sagan’s Milan-San Remo earlier in the year, picked up his first ever Tour de France stage victory today in a reduced-bunch sprint that was without Marcel Kittel (dropped on the final climb) and Andre Greipel (crashed with 3km to go) and which, we thought, was supposed to be Peter Sagan’s first stage victory of this Tour. Yes it was that man he beat into second that grabbed the headlines away from Kristoff’s big day.
The Slovak has now finished 2nd on four different occasions in this Tour behind Marcel Kittel (twice), Matteo Trentin and now Kristoff; he’s finished 4th on three occasions on stages won by Vincenzo Nibali, Kittel and Lars Boom; and he’s finished 5th once when Andre Greipel won. He’s watched as each one of these men have hit their stride to beat him and then gone away again while he maintains an unparalleled level of consistency in stage finishes, without being able to go up that one position.
Potentially speaking had Sagan been able to put it together as it looked like he might coming into the final kilometres over this first week and a half, we could be looking at a man with six or seven or more stage wins in this Tour. Yet he has none and it’s hard to put a finger on why?
At first glance it would seem that Sagan is a jack of all trades, but a master of none. He is not a pure sprinter in the Kittel/Cavendish mold but just a step below; able to win when it is a slightly reduced field but often beat into second or third when it is a full bunch sprint. He can climb well on the short sharp hills but cannot stay with the pure climbers in the high mountains. He’s decent against the clock but never one to win a time-trial and he’s an excellent classics rider, always in the mix and regarded as one of the worlds best, but he’s never won a Monument. Even going downhill there is nobody who can match him, but then again the Tour has yet, unfortunately, to implement a downhill time-trial into its repertoire.
He is supremely consistent — hence two green jersey titles to his name in his first two Tours de France, and baring disaster a third is on its way — but he’s quickly becoming the stage race version of what Raymond Poulidor was to the GC: The eternal second. But he is only 24 years of age. His best years should still be in front of him, his sprint should get quicker, his tactical nous sharper and his all-round race craft more honed. When this happens then these results that seem to be just a place or two in front of him will come thick and fast.
Take Sean Kelly as an example. A prolific winner throughout his career who had all the attributes that Sagan is striving for, but it is worth remembering that at the same age as Sagan is now Kelly had not yet won a Monument classic either, nor had he won a green jersey in the Tour. (He did finish 4th in the Vuelta aged 24). Kelly won four Tour stages in his first four Tours before taking his first of four green jersey competitions in his fifth at the age of 26. Kelly then never won another Tour de France stage, likening the Green jersey to having a target on your back. He became a marked man and the man others would look for to close a gap, especially in a stage not fully designed for the purest of sprinters.
And then Sagan: He won three stages in his first Tour in 2012 aged 22 and another last year, and on both occasions he won the green jersey competition. He is winless in this years tour but the big question is whether this is just a freak year when little things have conspired against him or whether he has become a victim of his young success? Whether he now has the target on his back that Kelly once carried?
Note stages 2, 5, 7, 11 and 12 of this Tour. None contained the likes of Kittel and yet Sagan finished 5th, 4th, 2nd, 9th and 2nd in each respectively. He was the favorite to win them once the selection of contenders had been made and yet he was worked over by the rest (with the exception of stage 5 on the pave perhaps when Astana went to the front and he failed to go with them). His team would ride hard throughout a lot of those stages looking to bring back a break and they got little help from the other teams who knew it was Sagan who was best suited to win. That left him isolated late on and when late attacks came the rest looked to Sagan to bring them back. They knew he would feel obliged to chase, and when he did, someone else would go.
Stage 7 in particular stands out. Greg Van Avermaet made his move over the top of the final climb, the Côte de Boufflers, and Sagan knew the rest would look to him to bring him back…all willing to gamble on losing the stage than to bring it back only for the Slovak to win the sprint. And so Sagan felt the only thing he could do was go with Van Avermaet than risk seeing him stay away to win. The dilemma then reared up when the rest began the chase and when it became clear that they wouldn’t stay away, Sagan had to sit up and recover quickly for a sprint he would probably have preferred to begin with. The net result was that his legs didn’t recover enough…by the distance of about half an inch which is what Trentin beat him by in the photo finish.
The opposite script played itself out on stage 11 when he again went clear on the descent, this time with Michal Kwiatkowski and Michael Rogers. Sagan did the big pulls on the front to try and bring back loan escapee, Tony Gallopin but when they did and there was a lull in a group with only a few seconds lead over the peloton, Gallopin jumped again and again the rest looked to Sagan. Had he chased him he risked burning another match while the rest saved themselves on his wheel, but this time he looked to the others and the bunch swept them up and this time the loan move stayed clear and Gallopin won the stage. It seemed that Kwiatkowski preferred to risk losing than to risk allowing Sagan the chance to win. Only had Sagan done the leg work did Kwiatkowski feel it was worth going for glory. Or so it seemed.
A victim of his own success indeed.
It would appear the only way out of his for Sagan is to gamble right back at his rivals a little bit more, just like he did on that 11th stage. The next time someone goes clear late he needs to let them go again. Let someone else chase and if they don’t then accept the defeat. The moment he loses a few more times like that the rest will quickly realise that they cannot always look to him, and his team, to do the chasing.
The only problem here is that this should have been the strategy in the first week because if it had, then by now he might be finding a win or two coming his way. Now however the number of stages that suit him for a victory are decreasing and the desperation to get a single win is probably going to override the desire to start playing a cat and mouse game with the rest.
Still, who doesn’t love watching Sagan race? To curb that aggressive style as a tactical move to initiate more stage wins may look better on the palmares, but it would also take something away from his character…you don’t imagine it would bring him the same satisfaction. Sagan is clearly an aggressive rider by nature, unwilling to sit in on the bunch if the chance to attack, even on a descent, presents itself, even willing to go up the road on a mountain stage just to collect the intermediate sprint points in a competition he has already won. Even if he’d known the outcome of stage 7 or 12, the simple desire to drop the pack on a descent may have proven to be too good a challenge for Sagan to refuse. Sagan is a larger than life character; see the no-handed wheelie up the final ramp to La Planche des Belles Filles on stage 10.
It’s all of this — his aggression, his character, his constant presence in the thick of the action — as much as his actual race victories that are going to make him one of the most highly paid cyclists on the planet next year.
I just hope he figures it out, ideally without changing much about his style, and the wins come. And age suggests he will, often, and his palmares will only expand as time goes by. I think we’d all love to see the results measure up to the abundantly obvious young talent we’ve been given the pleasure to enjoy, but not at expense of the entertainment.
1. Kristoff (KAT) in 4h32:11
2. Sagan (CAN)
3. Demare (FDJ)
4. Albasini (ORI)
5. Navardauskas (GAR)
6. Trentin (OPQ) all s.t.
1. Nibali (AST) in 51h31:34
2. Porte (SKY) +2:23
3. Valverde (MOV) +2:47
4. Bardet (ALM) +3:01
5. Pinot (FDJ) +3:47
6. Van Garderen (BMC) +3:56