Comment: Why Peter Sagan was right to sit on Cancellara’s wheel

Was Peter Sagan right to ride the coat-tails of the yellow jersey all the way to the finish line before sprinting past Fabian Cancellara to win the stage?

Words by Lionel Birnie in Liège

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Sunday July 1, 2012

Was Sagan right to sit on? Of course he was.

There is no easier way to attract the opprobrium of some fans than sitting on and refusing to do your fair share of work but Sagan found himself in a situation where he had to apply cold, hard logic.

An ability to bluff is as much a part of a rider’s tactical armoury as a strong pair of legs and, in Sagan’s case, the way he was able to withstand the psychological pressure applied by Cancellara in the heat of battle was what enabled him to win when others may have folded.

Cancellara, the maillot jaune, flicked his elbow, the cyclist’s sign language that says it’s time for the guy in second place to come out of the slipstream and pull his weight. Sagan refused. A couple of minutes later Cancellara waved his hand in a circling motion so defiant it was as if he was trying to shame Sagan into going to the front. Still the young Slovak sat tight.

The flick of the elbow was not just a signal to Sagan to get to the front, it alerted all the spectators watching on television to the fact that Cancellara felt the Slovak had ridden his luck a little too long.

But if this had been a card game reaching its closing stages, Cancellara would have been the one with the bead of sweat forming on the brow while Sagan sat calmly opposite. Sagan knew he didn’t have to play his cards, so he made Cancellara stew a moment longer. It was textbook stuff and the lesson was: don’t panic, don’t succumb to some Corinthian spirit of fair play when the victory is only a few hundred metres away.

Paradoxically, had Cancellara not been in the yellow jersey, it would have been easier to buy the argument that Sagan should have given some help in those closing stages. But Cancellara already had the race lead and Sagan had fire in his belly.

Back in the spring, Cancellara found himself in a similar situation at Milan-San Remo. That day he attacked on the Poggio climb near the finish and went clear with Green Edge rider Simon Gerrans and Sagan’s Liquigas team-mate Vincenzo Nibali.

Cancellara was forced to do the bulk of the work as they came off the climb and headed into the finishing straight, with Gerrans particularly reluctant to put his nose in the wind, as the saying goes.

Gerrans was criticised for surfing to victory on the back of Cancellara’s hard work, as if it required no effort from Gerrans to keep pace with the Swiss rider and time his sprint to best effect. In that scenario, Gerrans knew he had only once chance to roll the dice. It wasn’t a work-shy ethos, it was sharp tactics at the sharp end of a long, gruelling race.

Sagan faced the same set of choices. He is 22 years old but gives the impression that he sees the world in dot matrix, like the Terminator. He was able to weigh up the permutations and work out the course of action to maximise his chance of victory.

You could almost see the words ‘calculating’ in blocky green letters scrolling across the inside of his eyelids.

With Edvald Boasson Hagen spent following his chase, and the gap to the chasing group likely to be enough, Sagan knew that he could afford to sit on Cancellara’s wheel almost all the way to the line whether Cancellara liked it or not.

And when all is said and done, that is what bike racing is about. The spirit of co-operation has its place. An exhausted rider sitting on the wheels of his breakaway companions for kilometre after kilometre and then sprinting past at the end would be frowned upon with more justification.

But Sagan’s tactics were perfect. In the space of about three minutes he spotted the danger, had the strength to make his initial move, assessed the situation and tied an experienced, intelligent bike racer up in knots.

Could Cancellara have done anything different? He could have stopped riding altogether and given Sagan a different set of circumstances to compute quickly.

Would the result have been any different? Probably not.

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